The White House- Why the White House is White

Earliest known photograph of the White House taken ca 1846 by John Plumbe Photo Credit- This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c12293.

Earliest known photograph of the White House taken ca 1846 by John Plumbe Photo Credit- This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c12293.

The symbol of the presidency has been the White House. Originally, called the President’s House or President’s mansion, the site was picked out by George Washington himself and has been the residence of every president since John Adams. The building was designed by Irish-born James Hoban, who won a design competition for the honor. His plans were chosen from nine other proposals submitted, including one submitted anonymously by Thomas Jefferson. The cornerstone was laid October 13, 1792 and legend says is covered with Masonic symbols.

There is a persistent myth as to how it acquired its iconic white coat of paint. Legend says the white paint was added to disguise the burn marks from the British burning of Washington, DC. The White House was attacked during the War of 1812, but it had been white for much longer. The porous sandstone used for the walls was painted with a lime-based whitewash in 1798 to keep it from freezing. This coating was meant to wear off, leaving the cracks and crevices filled. However, the whitewash was never allowed to weather and was reapplied periodically. In 1818, it was painted with white lead paint. The first reference to the building as the “White House” was in a letter from Congressman Abijah Bigelow on March 18,1812 where he said, “There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President’s”.

There was much trouble at the White House at that time. America was about to enter its second war with Britain, the War of 1812. The war drug on for years, and the British were on Washington’s doorstep by 1814. The Americans were defeated at the Battle of Bladensburg and the British moved into Washington DC. The were looking for retaliation for the American sacking of York, present day Toronto, and began looting the capital. The Capitol Building was set ablaze by the troops gathering the furniture into a pile and setting it off with rocket powder. This lit up the Library of Congress as well as the Supreme Court.

Close-up image of burn marks on the walls of the White House. Photo Credit- White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Close-up image of burn marks on the walls of the White House. Photo Credit- White House Collection/White House Historical Association

From there they turned north up Pennsylvania Avenue. They found the house stripped of all the valuables that could be carried by the ingenious first lady, Dolley Madison. Her slave boy, Paul Jennings, was fifteen and gives this eye witness account, “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment. John Susé (Jean Pierre Sioussat) (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw [McGraw], the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President’s party.” After dinner, the house was burned and fuel was added to the fires to ensure they burned through the night and into the next day. They were only put out by “the storm that saved Washington”, a possible hurricane that swept through the city. Some of the blocks of Virginia sandstone that make up the original walls of the White House are clearly defaced with black scorch marks. They are the indelible stains from the fires of 1814.

The informal nickname of the President’s residence was the White House, however, it did not become official until 1901. Theodore Roosevelt had “White House– Washington” engraved on the stationary. The current design of the White House letterhead can be attributed to his cousin and later president Franklin D Roosevelt.

ER

Sources available on request