Perhaps the most famous and celebrated/infamous case of “Mr. Blandings Builds his Dreamhouse” was the aftermath resulting from President Harry S. Truman and his desire to create a balcony on the South portico of the iconic White House (President Truman famously ABHORED the fabric canopies that were previously used on the portico and referred to them as “Presidential Carbuncles”). However, immediately after the Truman Balcony was completed on the South façade of the historic edifice, the main body of the mansion was found to be structurally unsound. In fact this is a MASSIVE understatement, President Truman had “inherited” a White House that was in such horrific structural and functional shape it was actually near condemned; something generations of previous occupants had tried to hide with Band-Aid measures and a blind eye. As President Truman liked to say … “the White House was standing only from the force of habit”.
Originally Designed by Irish-born James Hoban and built between 1792 and 1800, The White House is constructed of white-painted Aquia Creek sandstone in the Neo-classical style. When Thomas Jefferson moved into the house in 1801, he (along with the renowned Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe) expanded the mansion outward by creating two colonnades that were meant to conceal stables and storage and giving it the classic shape it now exudes.
However, by the late 1940’s the White House was a structural disaster with many proponents arguing for it to be torn down and a new/larger mansion built in its place (the mansion is 55,000 sq. ft. excluding the government allocated East and West wings). The razing of the White House would have been a massive loss of a historical and social icon with a rich and dramatic history, including in 1814 (during the War of 1812) being set ablaze by the British Army in the Burning of Washington, destroying the interior and charring much of the exterior (It was a result of this that it became the “White House” from being repainted).
Reconstruction began almost immediately, and President James Monroe moved into the partially reconstructed Executive Residence in October 1817. Construction continued with the addition of the South Portico in 1824 and the North in 1829. The famed burning aside, the White House has faced a continuous onslaught of construction innovations in the 20th-century (indoor plumbing, electricity, security, ill-conceived 3rd floor additions and the disastrous installation of heating ducts). All of these “innovations of the time” had taken their toll on the structure, a brick and sandstone shell built around a thick timber frame. According to the National Journal, experts called the third floor of the White House “an outstanding example of a deathtrap”, while a federally commissioned report found the mansion’s plumbing “beyond unsanitary” and the “structural deterioration was threatening complete collapse.” By 1948, The New York Times reported that the infamous marble grand staircase was in imminent danger of collapse, and the building was to be closed to the public “indefinitely for repairs … and their own safety.”
By the time President Truman moved into the White House in 1945, floors no longer merely creaked… “they swayed, bounced and shimmied”. In a now infamous incident, a leg of Margaret Truman’s piano broke through the floor in what is today the Private Dining Room, like a scene from The Money Pit with Tom Hanks looking down from above on a terrified Shelley Long. Engineers did a thorough examination and found the hand carved plaster in a corner of the East Room sagging as much as 18 inches off its wooden sheeting base. Wooden beams had been drastically weakened by a century of cutting and drilling for plumbing and wiring and the addition of a steel roof AND a ramshackle full third floor added in 1927. The structure and frame could simply no longer support the weight and integrity of the structure.
THANKFULLY, President Truman strongly believed in the power of iconic buildings/landmarks and demanded that the primary shell of the building remain completely intact (this meant dismantling bulldozers, diggers and trucks and then reassembling them inside the gutted structure. The 1792 mansion of 55,000 square feet split across 132 rooms was carefully dismantled and emptied and all structural elements were completely rebuilt, expanded and drastically improved before the historic interiors were reassembled within like a MASSIVE Rubik cube.
As much of the historic detailing was saved as possible, especially fireplace mantels, carved paneling, newel posts, carved woodwork and the oversized hand scraped flooring. In a brilliant cost saving measure, scrap elements were sold encased as souvenirs to the thousands who came to see the process. The mansion was then rebuilt using concrete and steel beams in place of its original wooden joists. Some modifications were made, with the most obvious being the repositioning of the grand staircase to open into the Entrance Hall, rather than the Cross Hall. Also, before the renovation, no baths connected with the guest rooms. By March 1950 the demolition of the interior was well underway, leaving only a web of temporary steel supports to hold the exterior walls in place. By autumn, the White House was just a cavernous hollow space, 165 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 70 to 80 feet high.
Afterwards, all guest rooms had adjoining baths and separate baths were provided for the servants/staff. The higher ceiling in the East Room raised the east rooms about three feet in the original house, and four steps led into it, hampering the movement of the disabled FDR and, after his stroke, Woodrow Wilson. With the use of steel construction, Architect Lorenzo Winslow managed to reduce the difference to less than one foot. In order accommodate the closets and extra staircase to the third floor also requested by President Truman, Winslow created a corridor with a barrel vault ceiling that enclosed a ramp up into the East Sitting Hall. Central air conditioning was added, as well as two additional sub-basements providing space for workrooms, storage, and a bomb shelter.
The total cost of the renovation was just over $ 5.7 million dollars (about 65 Million dollars today factoring both inflation and adjusting for labour). Finally, the Truman’s moved back into the White House on March 27, 1952, into a White House that was ready to meet the challenges of a new century, both as the home of Presidents and as an iconic symbol of a nation.