The White House is one of the most recognizable symbols of the United States. People around the world visit America just to see the famous presidential house. You might know the name and what it looks like, but do you really know all the secrets that the White House holds?
These are the facts that the guide doesn’t share with you on your grade seven class tour. The White House has not only been home to presidents but to secrets and scandals. Read on and find out which presidents hated living there, how it got its name (no, it’s not from when the British burned it down), and the story of how one little boy died on the White House lawn.
George Washington Never Actually Lived There
Even though his portrait hangs in the hall, our first President never actually got a chance to move into the White House. He was the one to lay the cornerstone for the building in 1792, but he resigned from office 1797. Washington died two years late in 1799 and the White House was completed less than a year later.
That means the first tenants to move into the White House was John Adams and his wife, Abigail.
There’s A Secret Bunker And Escape Tunnel
After the bombings on Pearl Harbor happened in 1941, American’s realized that being on the other side of the world didn’t make them immune from attack. Shortly after, construction began on a safety bunker underneath the East Wing of the White House. It’s the same bunker that George W. Bush’s staff was rushed to during the 9/11 attacks.
While the bunker was being built, they constructed an emergency tunnel from the White House to the Treasury Building because a few secure vaults had been turned into temporary living spaces.
Johnson Almost Ruined The Plumbing
Plumbers hated coming to work for President Lyndon B. Johnson, and not for the reason you might think. Johnson apparently hated low water pressure and had plumbers in to constantly get a higher water pressure in his shower.
One plumber even almost had a nervous breakdown because there was “water charging out of multiple nozzles in every direction.” That same plumber said there was even a stream of high-pressure water directly pointed at the area of Johnson’s Johnson.
There Are A Lot Of Replicas Around The World
The closest replica of the White House is just a short drive away in McLean, Virginia. It is scaled down but is practically exact. The replica even has its own Lincoln Bedroom and Blue Room. There are other replicas in Atlanta, Austria, and even China.
The original and the replicas are all based on the Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland, which was the inspiration for the original architect, James Hoban.
The Basement Is Like A Mini Mall
The basement of the White House has everything you could ever need as a President. It contains a Carpenters’ Shop, Engineers’ Shop, Flower Shop, Chocolate Shop, Paint Shop, and even a cold storage for the kitchen.
The basement is also home to several offices and the laundry room, but most importantly, it holds Richard Nixon’s personal bowling alley. He may not have liked labor unions, but Nixon sure knew how to throw a strike.
One President Hated The New Electric Lights
Benjamin Franklin famously discovered the powers of electricity with his kite in 1752, but it wouldn’t be for nearly 150 years that another scientist would harness the power. It was 1891 when President Benjamin Harrison was in office and using electricity as a power source in homes was becoming popular.
When electricity was installed in the White House, Harrison and his wife were so fearful of it that they refused to touch any light switches. Staff members had to follow them around to turn the lights on and off.
Winston Churchill Thought The White House Was Haunted
Supposedly, one night while the British Prime Minister was visiting the White House he saw Lincoln’s ghost. Churchill had just gotten out of a bath and walked into his bedroom to see President Lincoln leaning against the fire mantle.
Churchill isn’t the only one to have claimed the White House is haunted. First Lady Grace Coolidge, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, and even Regan’s daughter have all claimed to have seen ghosts. The list goes on and on.
It Was Only A Nickname Until 1901
The White House name has nothing to do with the white paint used to cover the British attempt to burn it down. In fact, the building had always been white. In 1798, lime-based paint was used to white-wash and protect the outer stone from cracking.
The real name is “The President’s House” but the White House has always been its nickname. Finally, in October 1901, Theodore Roosevelt made the name official.
The President Still Has To Pay For Their Food
Even though being president means you and your family get to live rent-free, it doesn’t mean living expense-free. All food, grocery, dry cleaning, and toiletry expenses are taken out of the president’s salary.
That means even though the White House comes with a personal chef, the president has to pay for the food they’re cooking up. Considering they have a $400,000 yearly salary, the president can afford whatever food they want.
It Seems Like More Animals Than Presidents Have Lived There
Most people know that President Obama made the White House home to his dogs Bo and Sunny, but many more animals have wandered the halls. President Taylor’s pet horse Old Whitey lived on the grounds. Jefferson’s mockingbird Dick flew aimlessly through the halls.
Hoover’s two sons both had alligators that were said to roam the halls on occasion, and Coolidge practically had a zoo with animals like a raccoon, bear cub, two lion cubs, a bobcat, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippopotamus.
Ten People Have Died In The White House
Well, ten that we know of. Two Presidents—William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor—have both died in the White House. Three first ladies have also died while their husbands were in office.
The five other people we know have died in the White House include the press secretary Charles G. Ross, and Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie. Now the next time you visit the White House you can think about all the spirits possibly haunting the halls.
The President’s Desk Has A Twin
If you’ve seen National Treasure 2: The Book Of Secrets then you might already know that the desk that sits in the Oval Office has a twin. It was gifted to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 from Queen Victoria. The desk was carved from the wood of the HMS Resolute, which is how it got its name.
The front panel of the desk was later added by President Franklin Roosevelt as a way to hide his leg braces.
The White House Lawn Used To Be Completely Open To The Public
Nowadays we know the White House lawn to be completely gated off from the public. Every once in a while a hooligan will jump the fence but they don’t make it very far. Back in the day, there were times where the lawn was open to the public.
Thomas Jefferson used to leave artifacts out for the public to find, Grover Cleveland’s nanny used to take his daughter for strolls in the lawn, and Warren G. Harding used to leave the gates open so anyone could stroll on in.
Two Coffee Machines Are Courtesy Of Tom Hanks
Yes, we’re talking about award-winning actor Tom Hanks. Upon one visit to the White House in 2004, he noticed that the press break room didn’t have a coffee machine, so he just ordered one himself.
The same thing happened again in 2010 when he realized his original coffee maker was gone. Hanks even bought an espresso machine in 2017 to go with the coffee maker. Basically, the White House staff should be giving thanks to T. Hanks.
Birth Of A Nation Was The First Film To Be Screened At The White House
Looking back, it was probably a bad choice for President Woodrow Wilson to choose an overtly racist film to be the first one screened at the White House. But back in 1915, having a home theater was way ahead of its time.
Movie nights in the White House would become a common thing for later presidents. Jimmy Carter showed a record 480 films in his four years. Within those 480 films was the first R-rated flick in the White House, Midnight Cowboy.
A Sheep Once Killed A Boy On The Lawn
Back when the White House lawn was still open to the public, President Thomas Jefferson would often let his Shetland sheep roam free as well. The Shetland sheep was nicknamed “the abominable animal” by the White House staffers because it was known to be violent.
The sheep would actually attack people who took shortcuts across the lawn, and one time even killed a small boy. That sheep would have made an excellent Secretary of Homeland Security.
Yes, Slaves Helped Build The White House
Not everything in America’s history is all that great and the building of the White House is no exception. Washington, D.C. was land acquired from both Virginia and Maryland which were both slave-owning states.
If you look at the record rolls for the workers hired to build the White House, many of them were African Americans both free and enslaved. They worked alongside other laborers to build the house that, one day, an African American president would live in.
There Was A Second, Devastating Fire in 1929
Two months after the devastating stock market crash of 1929 that kicked off the Great Depression, things got worse for President Hoover when the West Wing went up in flames. More than 200,000 government pamphlets had caught fire and it took hours to save the White House.
Since the White House was not insured, Hoover had to ask Congress for a special grant to fix the damage. Thankfully, they said yes and we still have a White House today.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Turned It Into One Of The First Wheelchair-Friendly Buildings In D.C.
Not long after Hoover had to rebuild the entire West Wing, Franklin Roosevelt became president and had to change it all around. The polio-stricken president made several updates such as having wheelchair-accessible elevators, ramps, and even a therapeutic swimming pool added. And, he added the front panel to the Resolute Desk.
Roosevelt was also the one to move the Oval Office beside the Rose Garden, which is where it still sits today.
It’s The Only Private Residence The Public Can Visit
The White House is the only private residence of a head of state in the entire world that the public can visit. In other countries, the public is free to take a look at parliament and congress buildings but not the head of state’s private home.
Of course, any kid that has been to the White House on a school trip knows you have to book in advance and can’t go see any of the cool things.
The West Wing Was An Addition
As we all know from the television show, the West Wing of the White House is where the president works and where most of the important operations happen. The West Wing wasn’t part of the original White House though and was actually an addition built by Teddy Roosevelt.
Before Roosevelt built the addition, presidents worked in their room of choice on the second floor. He found working by his six children was too distracting, so he removed a series of greenhouses and had the West Wing built.
There Are Still Marks On The Walls From When The British Tried To Burn It Down
On August 24, 1814, deep in the midst of the War of 1812 the British set fire to the White House. The attack was meant to be retaliation against the American burning of Fort York in Canada.
The damage was extensive and many parts of the White House had to be rebuilt. Still, many parts were repurposed or covered up and you can still see scorch marks on some of the walls today.
Not Every President Has Enjoyed Living There
Most of us could only dream of living in a home like the White House, but not every president has been happy about their accommodations. President Truman famously described the White House as “the great white jail” and a “glamorous prison.” Melania and Baron Trump made headlines by not moving into the White House right away.
On the flip side, Nixon would walk around the halls joyously and even talked to the presidential portraits hanging on the walls.
You Only Have 12 Hours To Move In
White House staffers only have about twelve hours to move out the old president’s belongings and move in the new president’s things. The move out/move in process begins around noon while the new president is being sworn in and is making their inaugural address.
Staffers have until midnight to make sure everything is ready to go for when the president and their family returns to their new home after all the festivities.
The White House Is The Most Popular Residence In America
The only private residence that could stand a chance at challenging the White House for popularity is Elvis’ mansion at Graceland. Still, it doesn’t even come close. The White House welcomes about 6,000 visitors per day and 30,000 a week.
On top of all of that, White House staffers have to field 65,000 letters 3,500 phone calls, 100,000 emails, and 1,000 faxes every single day. With all those people in and out, it’s no wonder that Pablo Escobar was able to snap a picture in front of the gates unnoticed.
It Has A Whopping Price Tag
After the 1929 fire that destroyed the West Wing, Hoover realized the White House needed to be insured. To do so, it meant putting a price tag on a priceless building.
Appraisers came to inspect the White House, the land it was built on, and the features. With 135 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, and over 550,000 square feet of living space, the White House was valued at $412 million.
The White House Might Have Been Leveled
By the time by the time Harry Truman took office, the White House was 150 years old and in need of repairs. Things were so bad that all social events were canceled and Congress debated tearing the structure down and replacing it.
Fortunately for historians, Truman argued to have the White House reconstructed rather than destroyed. “It perhaps would be more economical from a purely financial standpoint to raze the building and to rebuild completely,” he declared in front of Congress in 1949. “In doing so, however, there would be destroyed a building of tremendous historical significance in the growth of the nation.”
Jenna Bush Heard Creepy Music From Her Fireplace
Most of the haunting tales in the White House are at least 40 years old, but George W. Bush’s daughter, Jenna, claims her room was haunted. Jenna said that one night she heard 1920’s-era music coming from her fireplace. When she told her mom she didn’t believe her so Jenna dared her to spend a night.
That night, both Laura and Jenna heard the same music. The staffers confirmed that they often hear the same music. Creepy.
Dolly Madison Saved The Oldest Painting
The oldest painting in the White House is of none other than President George Washington. The portrait has hung on the walls continuously since 1800 except for a few years during the War of 1812.
First Lady Dolly Madison thankfully decided to quickly cut out the portrait and take it with her when she and her husband fled the White House. By doing so, she saved the painting from being burned by the British in 1814.
The First Flushing Toilets Were Installed In 1833
The first form of modern plumbing added to the White House was during John Quincy Adams’ presidency. Adams was an avid gardener and added plumbing to the White House so he could water his plants.
It wasn’t until 1933 that President Andrew Jackson decided to pipe water inside the White House and install the first flush toilets. One year later, he added a “bathing room” in the East Wing.
Some Famous Guests Have Visited The White House
The White House has been host to some of the most infamous guests in history. The first British monarch to visit was King George VI in 1939, and the current Queen has visited four times. Of course, who could forget the time Princess Diana danced with John Travolta at the White House, or when Elvis visited Nixon.
Even Pablo Escobar wanted in on the action but he wasn’t going to get an invite inside any time soon so he took a photo at the gates like everyone else.