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White House REDUX: The Gut Renovation of the Executive Mansion December 1949 – March 1952

Jeffrey Syken

The White House we know today is, quite literally, a shell of its former self. By the time Harry S. Truman and his family were in residence at the Executive Mansion, the “People’s House” was in a sorry state of repair and was, in fact, in danger of collapse. Designed by Irish-born architect James Hobin - a favorite of George Washington, and first occupied by John and Abigail Adams (albeit it for only a brief four months), the mansion had undergone myriad alterations, additions, relocations, reconfiguring, redecorating, upgrades etc. in its century-and-a-half as home to America’s first families. Since the sign on Harry Truman’s desk read: “The Buck Stops Here,” it makes sense that he would be the POTUS to do something about the dangerous situation, once and for all. Perhaps the straw that was starting to break the camel’s back came during the Coolidge administration when “Silent Cal” added a heavy third floor atop the already weakened structure. No wonder that the floors creaked, chandeliers swung, piano legs fell through floors and the POTUS himself nearly fell through the floor while taking a bath. Truman had, by 1948, added a controversial Balcony to the South Portico (a/k/a “Truman Balcony”) thus, he was ready for the challenge of restoring the White House to its former glory, critics be damned. An engineering survey authorized by Congress costing $50K revealed just how decrepit the Washington D.C. landmark had become. It was determined the structure’s exterior walls/facades would remain intact while the interior of the residence was completely gutted and brought up to modern standards. As far as Harry Truman was concerned, the start of the renovation would have to wait until after the 1948 election, despite the dangers which were deemed so great that the entire 1948 social season was cancelled. Eventually, the first family relocated to nearby Blair House and the renovation began in earnest with the start of underpinning in mid-December 1949. Most of the year 1950 was spent disassembling interior spaces which, by the end of the year allowed for the floors to be removed, By early 1951, the interior of the White House was a hollow, cavernous space which would be filled in the coming months with new steel framing and concrete floors, after which the original rooms would be restored to simulate their original appearance. When completed in March 1952, everyone was impressed with the result save for Bess Truman, who wanted nothing more than to return to her house in Independence, Mo., with husband Harry in tow.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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