Washington, D.C. just has too many oddities (and, no, I am not referring to Congress) to fit into one column. This month I am focusing on one of the most recognized addressed in the country: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So let’s get started with country’s most impressive government housing: The President’s Palace The Gilded Prison, That Ugly Place, The President’s House, – but none of those really felt quite right (well maybe that ugly place was applicable when ceilings were crashing down and pianos taking unplanned trips).
The White House was so named in 1901 by Teddy Roosevelt. The name stuck, possibly because Teddy was carrying a big stick when he made the pronouncement. And what Teddy wanted, he got. Case in point – six children. The White House, as it was then laid out, was simply too small for State operations AND his family. Besides his wife, and the aforementioned children, they brought the family pets: many dogs (I am guessing 8 , one for each child, and two for good old Dad), a small bear, an unspecified lizard, guinea pigs, a normal pig, a badger, a blue macaw, a garter snake, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, a barn owl, a rabbit, a pony (which was a house pony) and “Baron Spreckle” the family hen. See? not an excessive number. I mean, doesn’t everyone a small bear, a hyena and a badger in the house? I also think that historians are overlooking the very real possibilities that some of these “pets” were food for other pets, and the pig at least could have been there to provide bacon. And it has been a well established fact for many years that there is never enough bacon. I am pretty sure Baron Spreckle was safe from being dinner. If you let the kids give the animal a name, killing it eventually and expecting the kids to eat the pet later is not realistic. There is no truth to the rumor that TR also had an alligator in the house while he was President. No one can tell us if he acquired any after he left the White House.
Two Presidents actually did keep alligators as pets in the White House. John Quincy Adams was one. I attribute it to being
named Quincy. The next President to have a pet alligator while in residence – Herbert Hoover. I figure he kept it as protection from the residents of the many Hoovervilles springing up all over the city.
It was not until TR came through with his larger than life personality, and family, that any serious expansion of the White House was contemplated. Until TR the business of running the Executive branch also served as the residence. The family ate in any room they cared to designate as a dining room. And, until after 1865, the Lincoln Bedroom was just any bedroom with a bed, wash basin, and a fireplace. A chamber pot would also be provided for, well, you know.
The White House did not have “indoor plumbing” until it was installed in 1833. The first toilet was installed sometime between 1850 and 1853. This means there is finally a reason to remember Millard Fillmore. I have not been able to figure why it took so long for toilets to be installed. 1833 until 1850 seems like an unrealistic amount of time to hold it.
The White house was first wired for electricity in 1891. It did not get a lot of use, President Harrison and the First Lady were somewhat frightened of electricity and refused to use the switches. The only other Presidents that was noted for his use of the electrical switches was none other than LBJ. The big Texan had a habit of wandering the place and shutting off switches in unoccupied rooms.
A telephone was first installed in 1878, at that time, telephone numbers were not in common use. The White House got the first phone number ever assigned to a specific place. What was that number, you may ask? One. I am guessing the President did not get too many important calls. A phone was not placed on the President’s desk until 1929. Personally, I think Presidents were just trying to evade telemarketers.
The White House has needed expansion since a President resided there. Abigail Adams used to hang her laundry in the East Room. She thought it was more dignified to take a chance to hang the wet clothes where anyone could just stroll in and have their face smacked with John Adams’ drawers, then to hang it outside to dry.
A perfect chance to renovate the chance did present itself in 1814. Dolley Madison planned a great party complete with a sumptuous banquet (yes, cooked it herself). Just as it was about to be served unwanted party crashes arrived, and they sat down and enjoyed the meal. While they were asking for seconds, Dolley Madison personally rescued the famous portrait of George Washington by carrying it to safety. After dinner the British troops must have been in the mood for s’mores as they torched the mansion.
It might have completely burned to the ground had there not been a freak rainstorm and tornado the next day. The storm got the name “The Storm That Saved Washington”. I guess they had not started giving bad storms names that made sense and were easier remember, such as Katrina, Sandy, or Irma. I didn’t use Dorian as example because male names were not used until 1978. The first male storm was named “Bob”.
The West Wing was originally just a few rooms for food storage, servants’ quarters, and a privy. The West Wing, as we think of it today, dates back to 1902. In 1909 the Oval Office emerged. Of course, the President’s Office was not always called the Oval Office. During the four terms of FDR it was known as the “Fish Room”. FDR had at least one aquarium and mounted fish and other mementos of his love of fishing. The White House Press Room was added to the West Wing by Richard Nixon in 1969. It is unknown if he ever regretted that decision.
The East Wing, is where the First Consort…ehh, Ladies conduct business today. Like the West Wing, it started as several small buildings, the largest room was the smokehouse. Hams have since been relocated to other parts of the complex. The East Wing, pretty much as we know it today, was added to the main building in 1942. Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to start advocating for causes and needing a separate place to do her work. Like her Uncle Teddy, Eleanor also pretty much got her way too.
Oddly enough, the East Room, home to positive announcements, State dinners, and receptions is not in the East Wing. The East Room is the largest single room in the White House proper.
Members of the general public were able to wander into the White House just about whenever they wanted too until the Presidency of Grover Cleveland.
And now for the trivia you have all been waiting for: the residence portion has 132 rooms over 6 levels. The area should now be somewhat comfortable, even for a large family. Who couldn’t make do with 147 windows, and 28 fireplaces? There are also 412 doors (3.12 per room). There are also eight different staircases. But if you don’t want to hoof it, there are 3
elevators. 35 bathrooms, including one lavishly remodeled by the current incumbents.
As you can see there is so much to explore (and make snarky comments about) in our Nation’s Capital. I know some of you can see where this is headed – next month monuments, bathtubs and a ghost cat.