By LARRY HYPES
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Two summers ago, even before the ill-fated earthquake that struck northern Virginia, we decided to take a visit to the nation’s capital. That was when we saw it. “It” is the White House and we got a grand view from approximately 555 feet above the Washington skyline. For most of us, that isn’t possible right now because the grand obelisk is still closed for safety renovations because of the quake.
Even from the talent point in the city, the great home is quite impressive. It should be. Even without the porticos and additions on either side which house important governmental offices, the familiar main structure is impressively large. For instance, it is 168 feet long, and every good baseball player knows that home plate is 127 feet, three inches from second base so even when the World Series champions make their annual visit to see the president there would be room to include the infield between the outer walls just in case they decided to play a little pepper while in town.
The big section is just over 85 feet in depth and slightly more than 70 feet high. It sits in a stunning 18-acre parcel whose value is beyond measure. For the home improvement crowd who might wonder just what it takes to maintain that famous exterior, try starting with an estimated 300 gallons of paint to keep it gleaming in the sunshine. That does not include the East and West wings, remember.
At this point, there are some 132 rooms in the home including everything from bedrooms to a movie lounge complete with first run films should the first family decide to have a night in. There are six levels with a total floor space of slightly more than 55,000 square feet which is more than enough to keep the carpet cleaners and wood polish crews busy.
Now that the Obama family is settled in for another four years, the rest of us can only hope for a tour on occasion but even that must be planned in advance and carefully registered with the proper officials. Still, I can tell you from experience that a visit is well worth the time involved to make it happen. Just standing in those impressive hallways where the world’s greatest men and women have lived, worked, and visited over the past two centuries is enough to send chills over every American.
George Washington, the first of the 44 presidents, was the only one who never lived there. The distinction of being the first occupant belongs instead to John Adams who moved in during 1790. In those days, the building was primarily gray sandstone. At that point it was simply known as the president’s house. Two more names would follow. Once the bright paint began to cover up the original gray the place began to be called the “white house” but in government circles it was known as “the executive mansion” in reference to the chief executive who lived there.
Still, it was and is the people’s house and American citizens liked their own name so in 1902 President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed it “The White House” which is how it has remained ever since. Roosevelt explained that every state had an executive mansion and that the home of the national leader should have a unique title.
Like most homes, the White House has had its share of misfortunes, damage, and repairs. For instance, the British burned it virtually to the ground during the War of 1812.
That was during the tenure of James Madison. His famous wife, Dolly, gained fame for saving valuable artifacts from the home before leaving ahead of the advancing British.
The home was soon rebuilt. Although not destroyed, the house was significantly damaged during the 1829 inaugural “party” when newly-elected President Andrew Jackson invited supporters to a party which included — among other things — a 2,000 pound block of cheese which reportedly had the place smelling like cheddar for weeks afterward. More recently, the near total restoration between 1949-52 during Harry Truman’s administration made a vast difference inside and outside the structure. Gutted down to the bare walls, the framing at that time was replaced by steel beams inside the familiar outside façade. Truman also presided over the installation of what is now known as the Truman balcony.
Ironically, it took a tragedy — the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 — to force a move toward security and protection for the president at home. Still, there was quite a sensation in 1911 when President Taft discovered an lightweight biplane piloted by one Harry Atwood landed on the roof after Taft had earlier declined an invitation to take a flight with him. Taft was also the 335-pound president whose specially made bathtub could hold the four average-sized plumbers who installed it in the family living quarters.
A further tightening of the security came with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and has gradually increased in the period since. Today, the White House is effectively blocked from street traffic with a variety of devices including large concrete barriers placed strategically along nearby roadways combined with a 24-hour security team patrolling the perimeter.
Behind that impressive exterior, where the Resolute desk made famous in recent years by the “National Treasure” movies sat, down to the lower level bowling alley and on to the Oval Office every American knows as the nerve center of the nation (that distinction actually goes to the “real” situation room in one of the wing additions), there is really no place like it. From John Philip Sousa to Beyonce, its residents have had the greatest music, the finest food and the most intense pressure of any American citizens.
George Washington may never have lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — but his picture did — and since 1800 it remains the oldest article in the place.
Larry Hypes, a teacher at Tazewell High School, is a Daily Telegraph columnist.