Blueprints of America: Building the White House

Blueprints of America: Building the White House

If you’ve ever walked down Washington, D.C.’s Pennsylvania Avenue, you’ve likely admired the many impressive buildings that line the street – but none come close to the magnificence of the White House.

The towering pillars and grand, white frame of the home where 45 U.S. presidents and their families have resided are second to none. And its history is even more fascinating.

Facing fires, renovations, and mobs, the White House has truly stood the test of time. So, what’s the story behind building the White House, and who was involved in the construction of this beloved national treasure? 

Like every great piece of architecture, the story of the White House begins with an idea and a beautiful spot of land on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

Building the White House

Building the White House

In 1791, two years into his first term as President of the United States, George Washington, with the help of engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant, selected the location where the White House was to be built. 

That March, a national design competition was advertised and people from all over the nation submitted drawings for both the White House and the Capitol Building. Though many proposals were submitted, including one from Thomas Jefferson, Irish-American architect James Hoban’s drawing was ultimately chosen. 

The building’s cornerstone was laid later that same year on October 13, 1792, and the eight-year project that was building the White House began

Hundreds of workers put in countless hours over the nearly decade-long project. Many laborers who built the White House, both enslaved and free, worked as axemen, stone cutters, carpenters, brick makers, sawyers, and builders to take on the massive undertaking.

The first thing laborers did was to clear the 18 acres of land the White House sits on. They built roads, wharves, and bridges to make construction more accessible, and work on the actual building began soon after, according to The White House Historical Association.

The government purchased a stone quarry in Stafford County, Virginia in December 1791. The quarry sat a few miles inland of the Potomac River and allowed workers to transport stone from the quarry upriver to build both the White House and the Capitol Building. 

Around that same time, brickmakers built kilns near the construction site to more easily make bricks for the interior of the building. Axemen cut trees in the forests of Virginia and Maryland, sending the lumber back to D.C. to construct the floors and roof. 

Meanwhile, back at the site, various workers began construction on the massive six-floor, 132-room, 55,000-square-foot mansion. Eight years and $232,372 later, the White House was finally habitable, and John Adams and his family moved in on November 1, 1800. 

Though the first family moved in, the White House wasn’t quite completed yet, much to the dismay of First Lady Abigail Adams. Builders had worked hard to put the finishing touches on the house before the family arrived, including plastering and painting the walls, and even though it wasn’t complete when the Adams family moved in, it was finished shortly after.

Only a decade and a half after construction was completed on the White House, British troops set fire to the building in 1814 as a retaliation to the United States in the midst of the War of 1812. 

Sadly, much of the beautiful building was destroyed in the fire, and James Hoban, the same architect who designed the White House initially, was charged with rebuilding his creation. 

Not only did he rebuild what was lost, but he added the house’s South Portico as well. The building was habitable once again by 1817, and President James Monroe was the next to move in, according to the White House’s website

White House Renovations

Several renovations took place throughout the history of the White House, including the addition of the North Portico in 1829 under the Andrew Jackson administration. 

The next major renovation occurred in 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt decided to construct the White House’s West Wing, which was meant to be a temporary Executive Office Building. 

In 1948, a deteriorating, collapsing White House went through yet another renovation. This upgrade is said to have been so extensive, it changed the building even more than the fire of 1814 did. This renovation, overseen by President Harry S. Truman, lasted from 1948 to 1952 and involved completely gutting and remodeling the interior of the White House, laying a new foundation, and constructing a new steel frame. 

The last White House renovations seemed to have done the trick. While every first family that has occupied the White House has left their mark in some way or another, no other major upgrades or repairs have been necessary since the Truman family moved back into the White House in 1952.

White House Facts

Since John Adams and his first family moved into the White House in the year 1800, the building has housed 45 families, seen 10 deaths, and the birth of a child. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the many politicians, officials, foreign leaders, and even celebrities that have graced its doors.  

An immeasurable amount of history and fascinating events have happened at the White House, and the nooks and crannies within the building itself house many interesting facts and secrets. Here are a few interesting tidbits about this great landmark: 

  • The White House didn’t get its name until 1901 when it was dubbed such by President Theodore Roosevelt. Prior to that, it was known as the “President’s House” or the “Executive Mansion.” 
  • It takes 570 gallons of paint to cover the entire exterior of the White House.
  • There are 132 rooms in the White House –  including 16 family-guest rooms, a main kitchen, a diet kitchen, a family kitchen, and 35 bathrooms in addition to its many offices and meeting rooms. It also has 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, and three elevators.
  • The White House kitchen is large enough to serve dinner to up to 140 guests, and hors d'oeuvres to over 1,000 people.  
  • The White House isn’t just about business. It also contains plenty of fun activities including a bowling alley; a 42-seat movie theater; a music room; a game room with ping-pong and billiards, a putting green, a jogging track, and even a pool hidden beneath the press center. 
  • The White House was the largest house in America until after the Civil War. 
  • The White House is missing its cornerstone – and has been since day one. The cornerstone was placed underground as part of the building’s foundation during a Masonic ceremony in 1792. Unfortunately, those who were there to place the inscribed cornerstone forgot where they put it (or intentionally “misplaced” it, depending on who you ask) and it hasn’t been seen since. It is, to this day, one of the biggest mysteries of White House history.
  • There is no law requiring the president to live in the White House – it’s merely tradition. Even so, every United States president has lived in the White House, with the exception of George Washington. 
  • While the president and first family live in the White House rent-free, they are financially responsible for things like food, party staff, and dry cleaning just like the rest of us, and some even leave office in debt

Current White House


The White House is one of the most famous landmarks in the United States. Having housed 45 U.S. presidents and their families since construction was completed in 1800, this classic piece of architecture holds an incredible amount of history. 

Building the White House was not an easy feat. Hundreds of skilled craftsmen and laborers worked to construct the White House over an eight-year span, as well as during its four major renovations over the years. 

Today, the White House continues to represent the strength and freedom of our great nation, and the Americans who work hard every single day to keep it running. 

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