Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Architecture of Power 2: The White House

If the Capitol building is a symbol of a powerful nation (see previous blog entry), the White House is the symbol of a powerful individual, the President of the United States.
White House stationery.

The White House is interesting as much for what it is not as for what it is. The White House, as signified by name, is not a palace. It is not a castle. It is not even called a mansion. It is a house. (Although it should be noted that early appelations referred to it as the President's Mansion or the President's Palace.) As seats of power go, it is comparatively humble, meant to reflect the idea that our President is a man of the people. He is not a king or sultan or dictator. We do not have, therefore, something like Buckingham Palace with its brutally imposing facade and massive size.  Where palaces of potentates are deliberately intimidating and seemingly impenetrable, the White House is gentle by comparison. The grounds are bucolic and welcoming; most powerful administrative functions are downplayed. It presents a domestic visage. The Oval Office, the epicenter of power, is tucked to the side of the main quarters. Other important functions are shifted to to the executive office building. (An exceedingly ugly and ornate Victorian structure a block away). The core of the White House looks like a white house, not the nexus of national and international activity it certainly is.  Sure, it is a mansion, but a mansion not much different than your local run-of-the-millionaire might inhabit. The leader of the free world lives here, but that fact is cleverly downplayed.
The north facade looks like a two story building. Note how the east and
west wings and third floor are barely visible. 
Earliest known photo of the White House. (South Lawn.)
This self-effacing White House is a deliberate illusion.  The under-played west wing is one device that keeps the main house looking like a "simple" mansion. The third floor above the main house is downplayed as an incidental attic, set back from the outer walls and mostly hidden behind a Palladian balustrade. In reality, it houses full size rooms put to various support purposes.  Major functions are hidden from public view, including extensive basement bunkers and tunnels, and certainly a lot of things to which only the secret service is privy.

The White House structure is much more complex than first meets the eye.  At a glance it appears to be a two-story home.  In reality, the ground plane has been manipulated so the ground floor is hidden from view on the north (front) elevation.  The "first" and "second" floors are raised a full story above natural grade. The apparent attic is essentially a fourth story.  Two levels of basement below the ground floor make this a six story enterprise - half of it hidden or disguised.  Contiguous with the main building, the west and east wings are attached by the ground level and basement, visually diminishing their true importance and extent. It is all very clever.
White House interior during the Truman renovation.

The basic form of the current White House can be attributed to the Truman renovation constructed from 1949 to 1952.  When Truman took office, the White House, without exaggeration, was a wreck. Things were so rotted and shaky that Truman claimed there was imminent danger of his bath tub crashing through the second floor while the Daughters of the American Revolution were having tea in the room below. He would be forced to greet them "wearing nothing more than reading glasses." Indeed, in 1948 a leg of Margaret Truman's piano actually crashed through a second floor sitting room through the ceiling of the dining room below.

The White house had been altered many times to accomodate the tastes and preferences of different administrations. Most notably, perhaps, was the restoration after a major fire during the War of 1812.  But the Truman renovation created the basic shape of the White House we know today. This rebuilding preserved the outside walls of the White House, but not much else.  This extent of rebuilding is quite obvious in period photographs.
Schematic overview of the White House complex. 

Detail plan of the west wing. (Reversed and up side down from the preceding drawing.) 

Like the Capitol building, the White House is an icon of political power. As such, it is almost impossible to judge as architecture. What can we say about the design? It succesfully uses architectural  deceptions to hide its true size. It is an textbook example of neo-classical residential architecture, completely in tune with the architectural fashion the late sixteenth century. The original design was created by architect James Hoban, selected by George Washington in a competition.  (Thomas Jefferson had anonymously submitted a competing design.) In the end, is it good architecture? Maybe. Probably. But that is overshadowed by everything else it represents.
Basic plans of the first and second floors. 
The home of the president of the United States is an awesome presence in Washington D.C.  Perhaps we should be grateful it's impact has been somewhat tempered by design lest any self-centered, duplicitous, megalomaniac president assume more power and authority than is actually allowed the office. One can hope.
This aerial view reveals the attic addition as well as part of the ground level.
There are two additional basement levels. 


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