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When the White House Was Nothing But Walls

To celebrate the Fourth of July, let's take a look at one of the most grueling White House restoration projects in our nation’s history. Most people think the biggest facility management project for the presidential mansion was after the British tried burning it down in 1814, or when First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy managed her infamous restoration project, but in 1949 the entire building was gutted - stripped down to just its rock walls - and rebuilt.

Falling Into Disrepair

What prompted such a huge project? The building was literally falling apart.

Here’s what President Harry Truman told his sister:

"The White House is still about to fall in. Margaret's sitting room floor broke in two but didn't fall through the family dining room ceiling. They propped it up and fixed it. Now my bathroom is about to fall into the red parlor. They won't let me sleep in my bedroom or use the bath. I'm using Old Abe's bed and it is very comfortable."

White House Deteriorating Floor

During an inspection, multiple structural problems were found with the White House, including this large crack in the West Sitting Hall under the plaster. Photo courtesy of whitehousehistory.org.

Congress requested an inspection to get a formal opinion on how bad the damage way, and the report determined the White House was unsafe for the Truman family to live in, so temporarily they moved. To be able to resume living in the White House, here were three options:

  1. Tear down the existing residence and build a new home

  2. Slowly renovate the structure, room by room

  3. Gut the building, leaving only the stone walls, and rebuild everything

Many people wanted to go with option one - complete demolition - but Truman and other politicians thought that would be a mistake. “It perhaps would be more economical from a purely financial standpoint to raze the building and to rebuild completely,” Truman told congress in 1949. “In doing so, however, there would be destroyed a building of tremendous historical significance in the growth of the nation.”

Eventually, option three was chosen. 

White House Truman Project Floor Plan

White House architect Lorenzo S. Wilson's floor plan drawing for the project. Photo courtesy of the Truman Library.

Congress approved a $5.4 million budget for the project in 1949, and planning was coordinated by a six-man commission and Lorenzo S. Winslow, the White House’s architect. John McShain, who was already becoming known as the man who built Washington, was chosen for general contractor. Before this, he’d managed other large projects including building the Jefferson Memorial, Pentagon and Washington D.C.’s National Airport. Franklin Kipp was the subcontractor who managed the interior woodworking.

Download - 5 Steps to Creating Accurate Floor Plans

The Renovation Process

First, the White House was painstakingly disassembled so historical elements, such as plaster moldings and the wood floors, could be saved. After all these pieces were put in storage, the building was stripped down to its rock walls, and 150 tons of steel beams were swung into the building through its windows to brace the shell from collapsing into the 168-foot by 82-foot by 80-foot space.

Journalists invited to the first press briefing inside the newly gutted space tried to describe the view to their readers. One reported: “The White House looks like a vast barn slowly being filled with steel cobwebs”.

White House restoration project steel beams

Demolition teams cleared out old building materials and steel beams were installed to support the exterior rock walls. Photo courtesy of whitehousehistory.org.

Hundreds of workers contributed to the project, including demolition teams, ironworkers, welders, electricians, plumbers, artisan craftsmen and stone layers.

White House Truman Restoration Duct Workers HVAC

Workers installed a new HVAC system during the renovation project. Photo courtesy of whitehousehistory.org.

Even though the whole building was brand new, experts say the only notable differences between it and its predecessor were the new two-story basement, modern service areas, a secret underground bunker and the staircase moving from the Cross Hall to the Entrance Hall. The whole process took less than four years to complete, and President Truman and his family were able to move back in before the end of his presidency.

Truman Family Welcomed to Newly Renovated White House

The President and First Lady are welcomed into the renovated White House. From left to right, Charles K. Clauch, Usher; President Harry S. Truman; Howell G. Crim, Chief Usher; First Lady Elizabeth Truman; Alonzo Fields, Maitre d'hotel; J.B. West, Usher; William Kelly, Project Manager, Public Buildings; and Jess Larson, General Services Administration. Photo courtesy of whitehousehistory.org

The White House hasn’t undergone such a massive renovation since the Truman presidency, but every administration incorporates new technology and personal designs in the mansion with the help of its facility management team. This glimpse into history shows how important facilities teams are to keeping occupants, including the first family, safe.

Happy Fourth of July!

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