The Icon: White House Trivia

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Since its first days, the White House has claimed to belong to the American people.

Indeed, throughout much of the 19th century, folks could walk right up to the front door and request a meeting with the president to air whatever grievances they had. Of course, that’s impossible in this high-security age.

These days, Americans must apply at least three weeks in advance through their Member of Congress—non-citizens can do so through their embassy in D.C.—and be screened by the Secret Service before being cleared to take a self-guided spin around the “people’s house.”

You can skip the red tape by taking a virtual tourBut if you’re looking to explore the quirky history of this storied abode, here’s a bit of trivia to whet your appetite:

White(wash) House: The White House was never intended to be white. The building was constructed of gray sandstone, giving its facade a darker, more dour appearance. But to protect the porous rock from freezing, a lime-derived base coat was applied, imparting the first hints of the edifice’s now trademark hue. The full-on vibrant white look was clinched in 1817, when the building was slathered in oil-based paint.

Firsts: In 1791, George Washington himself selected the plot of land where the president’s house would be built—a cornfield about a mile from the future Capitol. Though America’s first president chose the site and oversaw the construction of what would become one of the most powerful symbols of the American presidency, he never actually lived there. The White House was not completed until 1800, after Washington retired—meaning John Adams was the first president to move in (albeit the plaster was still wet and the rooms unfurnished). 

National treasures: Back in the 19th century and into the 20th, when a president left office his furnishings were sold off or thrown away. Jacqueline Kennedy changed that in the 1960s, when she initiated a program to preserve works of art, official gifts, and personal belongings that now constitutes one of the finest collections of fine and decorative art in the nation. As you tour the White House you will be privy to some of those treasures, including the full-length portrait of George Washington Dolley Madison saved as the British rushed to torch the White House in 1814.

Bachelor party: The only President to be married in a White House ceremony was Grover Cleveland, who wed Frances Folsom (27 years his junior) in 1886. Just 28 guests attended the intimate ceremony, held in the Blue Room with music provided by John Philip Sousa and the United States Marine Band. The room’s windows were blackened and the draperies closed during the nuptials, but as soon as the “I dos” were exchanged, church bells conveyed the happy news across Washington. Another Cleveland distinction: He is the only American President to serve non-consecutive terms.

Work from home: The Oval Office, the president’s formal workspace, did not come into being until 1909, when William Howard Taft had the West Wing extensively remodeled. Thomas Jefferson divided the East Room to create an office and bedchamber for his personal secretary. James Madison used one of these rooms for his cabinet meetings. Other presidents worked in rooms on the second floor. Abraham Lincoln used what is now known as the Lincoln Bedroom (and reputedly haunted by the ghost of Honest Abe).

Fun times: Various Commanders in Chief have added personal touches to the presidential residence to optimize their limited time for relaxation. FDR converted a long cloakroom into a movie theater. Gerald Ford put in an outdoor pool. Eisenhower had a putting green installed just steps from the Oval Office. And beneath the driveway leading to the North Portico is a one-lane bowling alley added by Richard Nixon. 

All in the name: The White House didn’t have a consistent name for over a century. It was called the President’s House, as well as the President’s Palace and the Executive Mansion. No wonder people started referring to it simply as the “White House.” The common moniker became the residence’s official appellation in 1901—one of Teddy Roosevelt’s contributions as president.

Meal ticket: A perk of being resident is having a personal chef. Some of the more unusual requests through the ages: Ronald Reagan, famous for his jelly bean obsession, had more than three tons delivered for his inaugural festivities in 1981. William Howard Taft—America’s heaviest President, weighing in at more than 300 pounds—requested especially hearty meals; one menu included lobster stew, salmon, roast beef, cold tongue and ham, and potato salad, followed by pudding, cake, fruit, and coffee. James Garfield kept it simple—he loved squirrel soup.

Moving day: In the 1800s, some departing presidents took weeks to leave the White House. Today, the resident staff has only a few hours to get the first family out and the new family in, all based on a carefully orchestrated timeline, which goes as follows:

9:30 a.m.: The outgoing president and first lady bid adieu to members of the White House staff

10 a.m.: The president and first lady have traditional tea with the president-elect

11 a.m.: The presidential motorcade heads for the inaugural ceremony as moving trucks are waved onto White House grounds

11:30 a.m.: The first family’s final belongings are loaded into vans, en route to their private home

12:01 p.m.: White House staffers move the new first family’s belongings into the White House and begin unpacking

5 p.m.: The newly sworn-in president returns to the White House from the inaugural parade—and starts dressing for the inaugural balls!

Barbara A. Noe is a freelance writer and the former senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books.

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