My favorite Washington lie
One of my favorite popular myths surrounding Washington D.C. is the widespread belief that the White House of today is the same building in which Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt slept. It isn’t.
It may be located on the same site, but the original White House was torn down from the inside out back in 1950. Only the thin, outermost, sandstone facade of the original building was saved. The famous white walls you see from the outside today no longer serve any structural function other than as decoration — sort of like the fake bricks or stone facades on those McMansions that dot the suburbs these days.
But back in 1950, the old building was falling apart, and something had to be done. The options were to tear it down completely and design and build a new executive mansion with a totally different look to it or try to preserve and patch up the old masonry structure in hopes of muddling along for a few more years. Instead of pursuing either of those options, then-President Harry Truman and congressional leaders chose a middle course: Tear every bit of the guts out of the old building and construct a modern, steel-frame and poured-concrete structure inside the remaining shell.
The so-called “Truman renovation” was not exactly a state secret, but the gory details were downplayed. As the accompanying photo of the gutted structure makes clear, not a trace of the “halls that Lincoln walked” or “the Lincoln bedroom” or the room “where Jefferson dined alone” even exists anymore. Anyone who has ever toured the White House can attest to the fact that it has more of the feel of a 1950s-era office building (which is what it is) than a creaky, old 19th Century mansion. No president since Truman has ever done much to discourage people from thinking that the White House is a 200-year-old structure.
The story of the White House being a bit of a historical fake is pretty common knowledge in Washington. But as a reporter working there during the 1990s, I became fascinated with the idea of finding out what had happened to the bulk of the original structure that was torn down. What had they done with all that historic rubble? To find answers, I got permission from my editor Ann Hellmuth to head to the National Archives for about three weeks and dig through the 45-year-old records of the commission that oversaw the White House demolition and reconstruction project. I also interviewed some historians and former White House officials who had done their own research or had firsthand knowledge of this chapter in history. There were several shelf-feet of documents to sift through (I love the National Archives) and it was clear from reading them that the commission had gone to great pains to keep things hush-hush. They really didn’t want anyone at that time (or even some nosy reporter from the future) to be able to track all the debris from this hallowed national landmark. But detailed demolition and dispersal records had been kept by construction workers, and they pretty much told the story of where all the bits and pieces had gone. They also indicated that the overwhelming bulk of the debris from the original White House had been hauled away in dump trucks and buried in a landfill at an Army base across the Potomac River in Virginia. I went over to Fort Myer and interviewed an old-timer who had worked there since the 1950s, and he showed me where the base landfill had been during that era. So I figured I had found the final resting place of the White House of Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt.
I had a blast researching and writing this story. If you’re interested in reading more details on this Lazy Labor Day Weekend, here’s what we published back in 1994. (WARNING: Like most of my stories, as Editor Ann will confirm, it’s kind of long):
And if you don’t want to read the story and just want some eye candy, here’s another link that will take you to some more cool photos of the gutted (and later rebuilt) White House: http://tinyurl.com/np382a
Programming note: This is Day 2 of Same Time Tomorrow’s cancer-free holiday weekend. If I end up taking a break from the blog on Monday, this post should still give you plenty to read.