American presidents come and go, but the White House staunchly stands as a beacon of hope to the free world despite the building’s surprisingly complicated and sometimes difficult history. As we close in on yet another changing of the guard, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at this iconic building. How many times has it been renovated? Is it really haunted?
“The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House” (Harper Collins, 2016) by Kate Anderson Brower explores the complex inner workings of the world’s most famous mansion. “The White House is the country’s most potent and enduring symbol of the presidency. Its 132 rooms, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases and 3 elevators are spread across the 6 floors–plus 2 hidden mezzanine levels–all tucked within what appears to be a three-story building,” writes Brower. It takes an army of “residence” staff to keep the place running, and some compare the structure and hierarchy of the place to that of a manor house in Britain, Downton Abbey style. Brower goes on to say, “Many First Families say they think of the residence staff as the true tenants of the White House.”
In 1948, the White House was deemed unfit for residency and a massive restoration took place. The book “The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence,” by Robert Klara, (St. Martin’s Press, 2013) details this four-year project. The architect for the renovation was the talented and flamboyant Lorenzo Winslow. Klara describes him, “At his brick cottage on Volta Place, he’d don a paint-stained smock and build furniture, weed his garden, and lavish hours on his temperamental MG. Only those on the inside realized the crushing pressures he was under.” Completed in April of 1952, the building remains very much the same to this day.
The White House is also lamentably connected to the grimmest period in US History. Two hundred years before President Obama’s historic inauguration in 2009, many workers in the construction of the White House were slaves (termed “employees” in documents of the day) and many of the U.S. presidents up to 1861 were slaveholders. “The Invisibles, the Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House” (Lyons Press, 2016) by Jesse Holland offers further reading about this troubled legacy. In the seminal “Black History of the White House” (City Lights Books, 2011) Clarence Lusane states, “For many African Americans, the ‘white’ of the White House has meant more than just the building’s color; it symbolizes the hue and source of the dehumanizing cruelty, domination, and exclusion that has defined the long narrative of whites’ relations to people of color in the United States.” Lusane also discusses at length the small number of relatively recent African-American candidates for president, courageous individuals and true trailblazers like Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson.
It is sometimes forgotten that the White House actually burned down at one point in its history. In the book “The Burning of the White House: James and Dolley Madison and the War of 1812” (Regnery, 2016), Jane Hampton Cook examines this little-remembered event. Partly an extension of the muddled Napoleonic Wars, the destruction of Washington by British troops was also a symbol of the lingering British antipathy toward our new country. Desires for revenge were clearly telegraphed a few years before by a circling and menacing English navy. Of the earlier invasion of Norfolk, Cook says, “Britain’s intentions in June 1813 were no surprise to those at the Gosport Naval Yard, especially the crew of the Constellation and the local militia.” Rumors percolated for years about a possible strike against Washington. Full British troop strength on August 24, 1814, led to the burning of Washington and the conflagrations that badly damaged the White House.
The White House grounds contain the famous Rose Garden, in addition to a plethora of vegetable gardens that have helped sustain generations of presidential families and residence staff. Marta McDowell’s “All the Presidents’ Gardens: Madison’s Cabbages to Kennedy’s Roses—How the White House Grounds Have Grown With America” (Timber Press, 2016) explores this happy history. This fine volume includes vintage maps, paintings and photographs from the gardens throughout the years. McDowell writes near the end of the book, “Why shouldn’t the White House gardens be our common ground, a way to look forward into the future and back through the layers of American landscape design and garden history? The gardens are one of the oldest continually cultivated patches on the North American continent.” Indeed, let us embrace this positive sentiment as we venture into yet another phase in our history.
Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.