It was an unimaginable crime, we couldn't believe something like that would happen here, three people dead, all from the same family. Nobody had a clue about who or why.
You got eight people and things like that don't happen anywhere.
This is the PYKEN massacre. Listen to the pectin massacre on the I Heart radio app, on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. We've all been in lockdown for months, glued to the news, Russian political meddling and economic meltdown and, of course, the global pandemic.
I'm running up the fact that I'm ranting Arab. And we're the hosts of Throughline, NPR's history podcast from Typhoid Mary, forced into quarantine for 30 years to conspiracy theories and all-American pastime. Listen to throughline on the I Heart radio app or wherever you get your podcasts.
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast, I'm Holly Fry, and I'm Tracy Wilson. So it was announced recently that the White House Rose Garden is getting a renovation. I noticed that announcement had sparked some discussion online, concerned people about the sacredness of the White House and whether people should mess with it. Look, here's the deal. Regardless of who is in the White House and what you think of their politics, I came to this topic because I wanted to reassure everyone that, yes, of course, the White House is iconic.
We all recognize it as the place where the president lives. But it has also always been in a state of constant change. Today's White House has 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. That was not always the case. It was also not always called the White House. And it has a lot of history. And while my initial thought was that talking through the White House's history and all of its various architectural changes and other things that happened to shift, it would help people see that change is just part of this building.
As I worked on this episode, which is now two episodes, it just became so clear that we really can't look at the White House's history without also discussing how it relates to slavery in the United States and how completely, literally deep seeded that has been in the country's founding. People often speak about the White House with this great reverence, but we don't really engage with how deeply entwined it is with enslavement. So today is going to be the later part of it.
We're going to talk first about the general history of the White House. And then on the next episode, we're going to talk at first about the White House gardens and their brief history or a brief history of them. And then we are going to get into some of the not delightful but really important talk about the role of enslavement in what has come to be known as the people's house.
So after the United States became a country in its own right and George Washington was elected president in 1789, there was the question of where the president should live. And that was an important question. Both New York City and Philadelphia hoped to be selected, both of them designed and built residences that were intended to appeal to George Washington's taste was really no secret that where the president made his home would be a boon to the chosen city. I mean, that's pretty obvious.
Washington had been living in New York, which was the first U.S. Capitol, but where the actual federal seat of government would be permanently was still undecided when Washington was elected. And the debate over the United States Capitol's location ended with the Residents Act in July of 1790. Tracy and I had discussed beforehand, like, this is a whole thing on its own that could be an episode because it is a lot of wheeling and dealing on the back end among three men in particular.
Yeah, if you've if you've listened to Hamilton, you've got a glimpse of it. The whole room where it happened is all about that. Yeah.
And the full name was an act for establishing the temporary and permanent seat of the government of the United States. And that act provided for Philadelphia to be the temporary capital for ten years and then for a site on the Potomac, which would, of course, become Washington, D.C. to become the permanent capital.
So George Washington moved to Philadelphia in 1791. He selected Thomas Johnson, David Stewart and Daniel Carroll as federal construction commissioners. Pierre Charles L'Enfant was selected by Washington to design the new city and the U.S. Capitol building and the president's house. The president, the commissioners and Lafont selected the site where the presidential residence would be built, and that was to be on the Potomac.
The French engineer and architect now phone, who had fought against the British during the Revolutionary War on the side of the colonies, started work in spring of 1791. LUNGFUL was brought on in part to ensure that the new United States of America would have a capital city in the grand European tradition, but built with a modern sensibility. But tensions really arose when his vision exceeded that of the government. When the fog dragged his feet on a map for the sale of the city lights, the city surveyor made one mile got no credit.
This, on top of the existing tensions with him led to fall, leaving the project. He was encouraged to do so by Thomas Jefferson. Sometimes you'll see this characterized as Laffont quitting or getting fired, depending on the source. The bottom line is this relationship had gotten so bad that both sides wanted it to end. Some elements of Laffont design do persist today in Washington, D.C. Lansac. Eight, particularly the National Mall, which was initiated by London's desire for there to be a huge public walk in the city, yeah, there is ongoing discussion.
If you I discovered if you go down architectural rabbit holes online of like really how much we do or do not odilon phone in terms of how the capital is laid out.
But Longfellow's exit from this project meant that they needed a new architect and the solution to finding one was a contest. This contest I read in different places, being credited as George Washington's idea. Others said it was Thomas Jefferson's idea. Again, completely different sources will tell you different things. But we do know that Washington reviewed the finalists submissions. And in the end, Irish architect James Hoban was chosen. Jefferson, by the way, submitted his own designs anonymously under the initials A-Z.
His design was not chosen. Obviously, that sounds like something he would do.
There are so many moments where I was researching this. Like, of course, that's what Thomas Jefferson. Yeah.
While the project for the president's mansion was based on the start that Laffont had made home and definitely brought his Irish background into the design. If you've ever seen Leinster House in Dublin, which is the seat of Ireland's parliament, it's obvious that the White House was inspired by it.
Hoeben staked out the president's home on July 19, 1792, although immediately problems arose from the switch from one architect to another. LaFalce design, which had already had the cellars dug for it, was much larger than Hoban's, and as a consequence, some shifting had to be made. So ultimately, Hoeben deferred to Washington on the matter, and he asked for the president to decide where he wanted the north wall of the House, and then he altered the layout to make that work.
President Washington gave approval to Hoeben to increase the footprint of the plan by 20 percent in an effort to help deal with this mismatch in design footprints. But that also meant that the planned third floor had to be cut from the design to meet budget restrictions required sandstone from Aquia Creek, which is 40 miles from the built site.
The stone, which is porous and cracks pretty easily when temperatures drop, was whitewashed to help protect it. And that led to the nickname White House, although that would not become the official name for another century. At this point, it was just called the president's house. Early drawings had it labeled as the president's palace. That was one of the ways that the new government's leaders wanted to kind of get away from their European roots. Yeah, there was a quick like, no, no, no, no, no.
This is not a monarchy not doing palaces. There were several other guiding principles to the president's house design that were insisted upon by George Washington. So, one, it had to have ornamentation, too. It had to be built in such a way that it could later be expanded. So once again, that kind of reiterates that it was always intended to be a thing that could change. And three, it had to be built upon a scale far superior to anything in this country.
This was a tall order. And to fill it, the areas around the construction site were turned into construction central. Basically, the area was filled with a sawmill, brick yards, storage buildings, kilim facilities and living spaces for the workers and the cookhouse to feed them. This was really a makeshift city of workers than it came with some less than savory behavior. A lot of gambling and drunkenness happened in the off hours. There was a house of, quote, riotous and disorderly conduct.
The establishment was run by a carpenter's wife named Betsy Donahue, and she was fined over it. But her business was not shut down outright. It was just moved to a privately owned tract of land. Yes, they basically were like, we can't have carousing. And there's definitely the intimation that there was brothel type activity going on there. We can't have this on public land, but if you just move this to this private lot, we'll let you go.
Incidentally, there's an interesting piece of trivia here in that the cornerstone of the mansion, which was laid on October 13th, 1792, has been lost to time during renovations that took place in the mid 20th century. People went looking for it and no one could find it. An x ray imaging system was even brought to the site for the mansion's two 100th anniversary in search of this missing cornerstone. But it was not located. It is considered gone at this point.
We'll talk about the earliest occupants of the presidential mansion and how the building changed over the years. But first, we will pause for a sponsor break.
It took eight years to get the president's house to a point where it could be lived in. This was due to some changes in design that were necessitated along the way, but also because it was really difficult to get enough labor for this massive project. We're going to talk about that some more in the second episode in eighteen hundred. The still unfinished presidential palace was occupied for the first time, and President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams moved in. That happened in November of that year.
John got there first and wrote to his wife, quote, I pray heaven bestow the best of blessings on this house and all that shall hereafter inhabit. It may none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof. That's the quote that was later engraved on the state dining room fireplace at the request of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Abigail, for her part, found the place quite challenging. When she arrived, she wrote to her daughter that none of the apartments were finished and that she was forced to hang laundry in the unfinished great room.
She also wrote, quote, The lighting of the apartments from the kitchen to parlors and chambers is a tax indeed. And the fires we are obliged to keep to securest from daily agues is another very cheering comfort to assist us in this great castle and render less attendance necessary. Bells are wholly wanting, not a single one being hung throughout the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain. This is so great an inconvenience that I know not what to do or how to do.
And I just. I keep thinking about the first lady doing White House laundry and hang.
You get up in the great me being like, I don't know why I would ask for help, but I can't find a bell to call them.
So she also included this rather charming statement in this letter, quote, You must keep all this to yourself. And when asked how I like it, say that I write you. The situation is beautiful, which is true.
Don't tell anybody I complained about this, OK? George Washington had, of course, died the year before on December 14th of 1799.
So he did not live to see his project completed. And even the Adams is only spent four months in the new home before Thomas Jefferson's election.
In eighty one, just four months were not especially luxurious. I mean, beyond the hanging of the laundry in the great room, it was the first winter for this new residence and some of the stuff they needed just had not been worked out, like ensuring that there was a ready source of firewood. And as was mentioned in Abigail's letter, not all the rooms were complete. So the first family had a reception room, a dining room, a breakfast room, bedrooms for the president's family and an office.
That sounds like plenty, but it's really not that much for an entire season of government. They also endure just constant construction during all their time there. Yeah, especially when you consider this is maybe the first live work space. Yeah, they were supposed to be conducting government business out of it as well as living there. Jefferson moved into the president's house in March of eighty one and it was, of course, still not completed. You won't be surprised to find that he had lots of ideas and he made an immediate update to the building in the form of adding water closets which were fed from attic cisterns that collected rainwater.
Prior to his insistence on this edition, the structure had been designed to have outdoor restrooms common for the time that new pavilions were also added to the grounds during the Jefferson presidency.
Those were the east and west colonnades, and they remain part of the design to this day. Those projects and others during Jefferson's time and the president's house were overseen by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
La Trobe also had the roof of the mansion redone in sheet iron. Prior to that redo, it leaked terribly because the original heavy slate that was used on the roof was wreaking havoc on the supporting walls. It was creating these gaps that caused leak problems. They also added a grand staircase and landscaped the grounds. That was part of why Jefferson wanted those outhouses to be done away with. He wanted the grounds to be beautiful. The staircase had been part of the plan from the beginning, but when Jefferson took office, only a temporary set of stairs was in place, with neither of the planned grand staircases built.
Well, Trump didn't have a free hand in this work. Jefferson had really clear ideas about how he wanted everything done, and their relationship is a little reminiscent of Andre Le Notre and Louis, the 14th of France, where Thomas Jefferson had to have input on everything La Trobe once wrote of his boss. Quote, I am sorry that I am cramped in this design by his prejudices in favor of the old French books out of which he fishes. Everything also sounds very like Thomas Jefferson.
Yeah, and I wanted to mention Le Notre and Louis the Fourteenth because it seems like the era of the Lluis in France was very much one that influenced Thomas Jefferson's thinking throughout in terms of design and how things should be done. There were drawings made by La Trobe for colonnaded porches to be added to the executive mansion. Those never got moved into an active project status. When James Madison was elected, Latrobe's stayed on, but he shifted his focus from architecture to more interior decoration.
He had not been a fan of Jefferson's proclivity to do everything in the French style, emulating Versailles. And he switched things over largely to English Regency and Greek revival decor.
In 1814, during the War of 1812, under President James Madison's presidency, the president's house was set on fire by British troops. They also burned a lot of the surrounding city. The presidential mansion was essentially left with only its exterior walls. When a storm finally put out the blaze. First Lady Dolley Madison would only consent, rather famously, to leave the residence. Once she was certain that the portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart had been safely removed.
She did not cut it from the frame and roll it under her arm. In a moment of desperation, as is often told, it was in fact removed from its frame and the stretched canvas that it remained on was taken by carriage to a safe location in Georgetown.
A home called Octagon House became home to James and Dolley Madison after the fire. That was a temporary residence and work was begun to restore the permanent home of the president. Although it took several months for Congress to approve the funding for the project. While Benjamin Henry Latrobe had a lot of ideas about how to rebuild, Madison instead opted to once again tap James Hoban to supervise the project with the intent to restore it to its original form. The new structure was ready for occupancy by President James Monroe in 1817.
Monroe had conferred with Hoeben after he was elected. Any change? Some of the plans that Madison had established for the rebuild Hoeben also made some changes of his own based on learnings that he had made during that first build. And at this point, while still nicknamed the White House, it was officially referenced as the executive mansion in accordance with James Monroe's wishes. In 1824, the South Portico was added. That's the one that's curved. The squared off North Portico followed five years later during Andrew Jackson's presidency.
Also during Jackson's term, the executive mansion got a huge update. Central heating and running water were added to the homes amenities. The East Room was finally completed as well. Yeah, there were a few different efforts to create a central heating plan, and I found a few that suggested that the first successful one was during Jackson's time, although successful, should maybe be in air quotes. When Franklin Pierce was in office from 1853 to 1857, he had the orangery built by Andrew Jackson transformed into a greenhouse that was inspired by Paxton's Crystal Palace.
That greenhouse did not last when his term was up. It was demolished to make way for a Treasury building expansion. When Andrew Johnson became 17th president after Lincoln's assassination, a series of changes began at the residence. Most of these were decor changes that were initiated by Johnson's daughter. But the larger scale change was the construction of two conservatories that created homes for a vast array of plant life. We are going to start to talk in this next bit about how the wear and tear and all of those renovations started to create some problems for the executive mansion.
We'll get into all that after we first have a word from the sponsors that keep stuff you missed in history class going.
Throughout the late 19th century, the House was showing its age and the result of all those renovations, and it got to the point where large receptions or events with numerous guests necessitated supporting the floors in the state rooms to prevent those floors from buckling under the weight. This led to proposals for all manner of additions and renovations, as well as the possibility of an entirely new residence being built at a different location. But ultimately, the idea of moving the presidential residence to another home was dismissed as the iconic importance of the executive mansion was considered too great at this point.
So instead, they opted for ongoing repairs.
President Ulysses S. Grant and First Lady Julia Grant opted to redo the executive mansion in Victorian style. That was part of a major renovation funded by congressional appropriation of one hundred thousand dollars. This renovation also prepared the mansion to host their daughter, Nellie Grant's wedding. The grants also had the grand staircase replaced with a landing at it. Yeah, I read in one place, but couldn't find primary sources to back it up that some people in the press made fun of Ulysses S.
Grant for having this very frilly house.
But I don't know, again, if that is a valid thing. I just wanted to introduce it because I thought it was sort of charming.
During both the Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland presidencies, there were proposals to expand the House that went before Congress. The Harrison plan fell apart when the first lady died. She had kind of been its champion. So when she was gone, there was no one else to really keep that going.
The proposal that was developed into the Cleveland's did not gain support among legislators. That version would have expanded the House out with two t shaped wings on either side of the mansion, creating a much wider structure, similar to many you might see throughout Europe. And the idea of renovation, though, was put on indefinite hold when the Spanish American War began in 1898.
In 1932, the presidential home underwent a large scale renovation under the direction of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt. Roosevelt also made its name officially the White House, since everybody had been calling it that for years at that point, anyway, the administration brought in the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White from New York to create a modernized, very stylish new design for the White House.
The idea of Charles McKim, who worked closely with the Roosevelts, was that they should restore the concepts of Hoeben and Latrobe, but also modernize the structure to reflect all of the technology that had developed in the century since the first occupants had settled into the White House.
This included shifting the office of the President to the temporary executive office building. That structure today is the West Wing. The intent was to create some separation between the family living areas and the work areas in the house. Previous podcast subject. Alice Roosevelt and her intrusive and impulsive behavior might have been a factor in that decision. Before this move, the offices and the family bedrooms had all shared the second floor.
The renovation was budgeted by Congress at a whopping half million dollars again in 1932. The conservatory's were demolished. A porch that had been built onto the east side of the home was similarly removed. The West Terrace became living quarters for staff and the gardener and also included a laundry facility. The interior was decorated in the bazaar style, echoing classic Greek design ideology as well as having touches of Louis the sixteenth design in some rooms. Just to keep things interesting, the big engineering swing that took place during this renovation was the removal of a load bearing wall in the state dining room to expand it.
That wall was replaced with a steel truss to accommodate the weight, and that became problematic down the road. Yeah, keep that in mind. William Howard Taft, who followed Teddy Roosevelt as president, had the Oval Office built in the executive building, which echoes the Blue Room. That's the Oval Diplomatic Reception Room of the main house. It's been called a number of things over the years.
During the presidency of Calvin Coolidge, the building's roof was repaired. It was the same roof from the 1816 reconstruction and it was in rough shape at this point. But Coolidge also added a third floor in the process so the White House could more easily accommodate guests and also have some additional storage. But this conversion of the attic space to make a third level was supported with steel girders and the combination of those sturdy but heavy girders with that truss structure that had been installed during the Roosevelt administration caused the White House to become structurally unsound.
While President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was in office, World War Two necessitated the creation of a bomb shelter. This was built under what became the East Wing that is now primarily used for the needs of the office of the First Lady. FDR also had a museum commissioned for the iconic residents to document and share the White House's history. But that museum plan fell to the wayside due to financial concerns. During President Harry Truman's time in office, the entire White House underwent significant renovation due to those structural problems that we mentioned a moment ago.
Those issues were discovered after the addition of a second floor balcony to the South Portico. Once those problems had been identified, the White House was essentially gutted because it was believed that it was going to collapse without intervention. All of those years of additions and changes in the introduction of electric wiring and pipes into a building that was not designed for them had taken their toll. And there had been three primary ideas regarding how to handle this issue of a crumbling mansion.
One was to restore the existing house. Two was to raise the house and rebuild it in marble, or three, that old chestnut build an entirely new presidential home somewhere else in the capital. Since it was decided that the White House should be restored during construction, the first family moved across the street to Blair House. Six million dollars had been allocated for this project and it was really a full rebuild from the foundation up. The stone walls remained, but everything else was removed, although much of it was carefully placed in storage to be reincorporated into the fortified new White House.
Ultimately, little of it was used again.
Yeah, there is an architecture book that I had bought to do research for this. And like it's so bizarre to see the White House taken down to the studs. Like there are pictures of it just looking like a bombed out construction site. It's really sort of strange. And over the course of four years of construction, the building got a new two floors basement that was pinned to a concrete foundation. The wooden joists that had been there for more than a century were replaced with concrete and steel beams to ensure greater structural integrity rooms that had been part of the house before the rebuild were re.
Created, but they had updates made to them to reflect modern sensibilities like bathrooms attached to bedrooms and fans and turbines added into the roof. But all of this was done so that the exterior view of the White House would remain basically the same. Unfortunately, very few of the mansions, historically significant artifacts are retained or preserved while saving the house itself.
During the Kennedy administration, First Lady Jackie Kennedy redecorated. But her vision for the mansion was one that sought to incorporate what had come before. Her redecoration was really more of a researched restoration. Mrs. Kennedy sought out experts in antiques and assembled them into a committee that would advise on this whole process. As Jackie Kennedy's efforts became public knowledge, antique pieces were donated from private owners to become part of the White House restoration.
In September of 1961, Congress passed an act concerning the White House and providing for the care and preservation of its historic and artistic contents. This established the White House art collection, and it finally declared the White House a museum. The first lady hired the first White House curator tasked with creating a comprehensive catalog of the home's contents in managing the collections with an eye toward preservation as well as collection. As you may recall from our Vincent Price episode from back in 2016, Price was one of the art experts who helped assemble that first official art collection.
But perhaps the most significant White House legacy from the Kennedy administration was the first lady's establishment of the White House Historical Association. The White House Historical Association is a private, nonprofit organization, and its stated mission is, quote, to protect, preserve and provide public access to the rich history of America's executive mansion. I used a lot of their available research as they worked on this.
In 1962, ABC aired what is now a pretty famous piece about Jackie Kennedy's work in the White House, including a tour of the highlights of the newly redone home. And the first lady spoke about her ideology for the whole process, saying, quote, This house will always grow and should. It just seemed to me such a shame when we came here to find hardly anything of the past in the house, hardly anything before.
Nineteen to the administration of President Jimmy Carter moved the White House into the future in two significant ways. One, the mansion's first computer system was installed and two solar panels were installed to heat the facility's water. Those panels were short lived. Initially, they were taken down during the Reagan presidency, although the George W. Bush administration put them back.
So that is where we are going to conclude for today. And in our second part, coming up next time around, we're going to talk about the gardens. And then, as I mentioned, we're going to talk about how much all of these things we've talked about really hinged on the work of enslaved labor. So in the meantime, I'm going to read a delightful email as a balancing act.
So it's not all all serious. But I do hope that in hearing all of this and particularly like that, the White House has burned out completely, been taken down to the studs, etc. People realize like it is not a static sacred cow, so to speak, something that shifts and changes.
That's just how it's always meant to be from the beginning. But the email I want to read is about something completely different, which is an older episode, the Limerick Soviet. Oh, yeah, it is from our listener, Sorina.
I hope that is how she pronounces it. And it makes me think of I Dream of Jeannie. Sorina writes, I am a recent listener, and since finding your podcast, I've been listening every day. I really enjoy the way you present information in a way where I can listen actively. And I often find myself talking about the wonderful, terrible things I've learned from you. I'm from Los Angeles. In about three and a half years ago, I moved to Ireland on my own.
Since then, I have entered a relationship and have also had the pleasure of getting to know my partner's family. My partner and his father are both history buffs and have been debating and educating each other for years. I recently spent a lovely sunny morning in our hammock listening to your episode about the Limerick Soviet. I find it fascinating, as I'm always interested in obscure Irish history, but when I brought it up to my partner, he had almost zero knowledge about it.
I brought it up the next day during a hike with his father and he knew a small bit about it and told me he has many friends in from Limerick and they fiercely deny this story ever happened. I proceeded to send him the link to the episode and the next morning he texted me to thank me for sending it to him and that he enjoyed it immensely. The best part being that he is absolutely delighted to have sent the episode to his daughter friends.
I'm still waiting to hear about their responses, but I wanted to thank you for your wonderful podcast and tell you this little story about your podcast, enlightening this American, her Irish partner, and now a group of. Plus, Irish lads, I hope you're keeping well, and I thought you might enjoy these photos of our elder pooping socks and read the 12 year old Boston Terriers, they moved to Ireland 2.5 years ago. Adorable, by the way.
Yeah, it's interesting.
I would not have known about the limerick. Soviet had a wonderful young woman named Maria, told me about it when I was in a bar in Limerick.
Right, as you may recall. And so it was one of those things that I immediately wanted to look into. I hope I have not ruffled any feathers in your your your partner's dad's social circle.
Fingers crossed. If you would like to write to us, you could do so at History podcast it I heart radio dotcom. You can also find us on social media as missed in history.
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