My favorite Washington lie

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on September 6, 2009
The gutted inside of the White House, from basement to third floor
The gutted inside of the White House, from basement to third floor

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:

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.  




11 Responses

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  1. Chop-line said, on September 6, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Thanks for letting me know you might be taking a day off tomorrow. I like to read your blog first thing every morning. I has become a new part of my morning routine. No matter what you write about, it always gives me something insightful, funny or touching to think about. It is reassuring to see a new post every morning — and it is always pure Holt-line. That is the best part.
    Enjoy your day off. Will be looking for my morning post on Tuesday though!
    Your pal,

  2. Ann Hellmuth said, on September 6, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Working with you on that story was one of those memorable experiences.


  3. Colorado Bob said, on September 6, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    There’s a metaphor buried here somewhere , but I can’t seem to put my keyboard on it.

  4. Colorado Bob said, on September 6, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    LL –
    Thanks for the background the screen name. I’m always jarred by the lifting of the screen to get a peek at the person behind these names we pick.
    My imagination never gets near who the real people are. It’s always off in the south forty, with the loco weeds , and the jingle bobs.

  5. Flatus said, on September 6, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Loved the story about the renovation. The pictures really make the reality real. And your exploration of the aftermath is fascinating.

    I guess most of us remember more of the abortive attack on Pres Truman while he was staying in his temporary home at Blair House than we do of the restoration.

  6. Diana-dawg said, on September 6, 2009 at 6:13 pm


    I’m late on the scene here and wonder if we can return to the Sept 4 post (What does a brain tumor cost?).

    That 4 * 12 table is really complicated. If you plan to present data in future posts, would you consider color-coding?


  7. Hilda said, on September 7, 2009 at 1:18 am

    Been reading every word…just fantastic and poetic work!
    Keep inspiring us all and keep being real…..
    Talk about “newsmakers” – hee, hee……(we had fun with that at first, didn’t we?)

  8. Dudemaster said, on September 7, 2009 at 3:09 am

    Very cool. I will read the full article later. I’m going to take an odd-ball stance here and say if the exterior white sandstone bricks are original and they never moved, then it is still the original White House, but to sleep in the “Lincoln Bedroom” as if Lincoln himself did, too, I now is fallacious. Thank you.

  9. Fairweather said, on September 7, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    Hey, Lard–can I call you Lard?–Mr. Lard seems so formal ;)–great blog post and article. I love reading your posts whether about treatment or otherwise. Your writing is concise and crisp and informative–qualities I really should emulate. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Craig Crawford said, on September 7, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Now if we can just can someone to redecorate the first floor, and get rid of Jackie Kennedy’s tacky french frills — i mean it, some of those rooms look like Jackie’s teenage bedroom. And the East Room, pu-leeeze, would make King Louie blush.

  11. Harry W. said, on September 8, 2009 at 11:41 am

    I thought I was pretty familiar with the W.H. renovation/gutting story, having read David McCullough’s “Truman” (McCullough thought the renovation was one of Truman’s top accomplishments), but your ’94 story broke all sorts of new ground (so to speak).
    I don’t remember reading your White House story back in ’94, but it’s still fresh 15 years later. And I think even Ms. Hellmuth would agree it’s not too long.

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