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When Was the White House Built?

White House
Construction of the White House began in the early 1790s.

The founding of Washington, D.C., in 1790 to serve as the new capital of the United States saw the development of the necessary infrastructure to serve its government. This included a residence for the president.

So, when was the White House built, who was the first to live there, and is it all still original?

When was the White House built?

Construction of the White House began in 1792 and it was ready for its first occupants in 1800.

It is one of the most recognizable buildings in the nation’s capital. But this wasn’t always the case. The building has undergone many structural changes over the years, meaning that little of the original building remains.

Washington’s Plans To Build a New Residence in Washington

Philadelphia was the nation’s capital until 1800 and is rightly regarded as the nation’s birthplace. 

Washington DC skyline
Washington DC skyline.

However, the government created a new capital to better represent the nation. The Residence Act of 1790 saw northern and southern representatives reach a compromise on its location on a reclaimed land area along the Potomac River.

This act also granted President George Washington the power to choose the area of the president’s new residence. He picked the site we are all familiar with at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, although the area greatly differed from the city we know today.

Although he was influential in deciding on the location of the new residence, Washington would never live there. The construction of the building took eight years, by which point Washington had already died.

Design of the White House

The plans for the design of the White House resulted from a contest to what the best architects could come up with.

Leinster House, Dublin, Ireland
The original design for the White House was inspired by Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland.

Some proposals were lavish and would have taken up far more of the presidential estate than the final plans. There was even a submission from future president Thomas Jefferson.

The winning design came from an Irish-born architect, James Hoban, who had traveled to D.C. at President Washington’s request. The plans were inspired by Leinster House in Dublin. Holban received $500 and land for his work, around $16,000 today.

Recently, designers created computer-generated renderings of some of the rejected plans to showcase what the building could have looked like. This would not have happened without the careful preservation of the original documents by the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

Construction Commenced in 1792

The construction of this new building began in 1792, with the first cornerstone laid on October 13th. It was a long process due to the monumental scale of the building for the era. 

John Adams
The second president of United States of America, John Adams.

Eventually, on November 1st, 1800, President John Adams and his wife could move in, although the building was still unfinished.

During this process, workers added a lime-based whitewash to the sandstone walls. This finishing touch gives the building the clean white look that allows for its name. 

However, this name didn’t become official until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made it so in 1901. Previously, it had been known as the President’s Palace, President’s House, and the Executive Mansion.

Changes to the White House Since Its Completion

Although we can say that every president since George Washington has resided at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, we can’t say that they have all been in the same building.

George Washington
President George Washington.

Many presidents changed the structure over time, improving its functionality and potential as a government office and place of residence.

Also, a combination of disaster and old age has led to a need for significant repairs and restructuring. As a result, much of what we know of the White House today does not resemble the 1792 plans.

The Impact of the War of 1812

America found itself at war again with Great Britain again not long after the War of Independence and the founding of the new capital. By 1812, the 4th president, President James Madison, was leading the country. 

The White House experienced significant damage during an invasion of Washington, with the British burning much of the wooden structure to the ground.

War reenactment
The White House sustained extensive damage during the War of 1812.

Government workers were able to save the stone walls, but almost everything flammable inside was lost. So, no future presidents could say they served in the same rooms as their predecessors.

The Oval Office and West Wing

Neither of these famous aspects of the White House was part of the original plans and took a long time to become features of the famous structure. 

President William Howard Taft oversaw the construction of the Oval Office in 1909. Jefferson is said to have wanted a section of the White House in the style of the West Wing, but it wasn’t completed until 1934, while Franklin Roosevelt was in office.

Fire and Disrepair in the 20th Century

In 1929, a fire broke out in those fairly new areas of the White House. The Oval Office sustained significant damage, so many original elements aren’t part of the office today. 

White House
The White House underwent renovation during Harry Truman’s tenure as president.

The fire also spread to a lot of the West Wing, leading to a need for further renovations and modernization there.

Of course, some areas of this old presidential building have fallen into disrepair and needed replacing over time. 

The extent of this is surprising for a nationally important building housing the nation’s leader. 

By 1948, many original structural elements were deemed unsound, and there was the suggestion of condemning the building and starting over. Instead, President Harry Truman insisted on temporarily moving out and allowing for renovations.

An Ever-Evolving Building

These changes show that when we answer the question of when was the White House built, there are two ways to do so. 

North front of the White House
The North front of the White House.

While there is a concrete completion date for the first building where President John Adams was able to move in, that building does not resemble the one we know today. 

It has been rebuilt, repaired, and modified significantly, especially in the 20th century, and could see further changes.

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