The White House

The White House is the oldest public building in D.C. and has been the home of all presidents except George Washington. It was designed by Irishman James Hoban, who won a competition in 1790, beating out fifty-one designers including Thomas Jefferson, who used a pseudonym when submitting his entry. Originally called the “presidential palace,” it acquired the nickname “the White House” after continuous applications of whitewash were painted on the exterior to fix it up after it was set on fire during the War of 1812.


Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, you must get White House tour tickets in advance through your local representative's or senator's office, and there are no tours on Sunday or Monday. Also, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and U.S. Supreme Court are closed on the weekends, so head there first on a Friday or save them for Monday.

James Hoban guided the subsequent restoration of the White House, adding space for the presidential staff. In 1902, a West Wing, with the Oval Office, and the Rose Garden were added under Teddy Roosevelt's administration. The third floor was added in 1927 to provide more living space for the first family. The entire White House was rehabbed in 1948 after the leg of a piano Margaret Truman was playing crashed through the dining room ceiling. The Trumans lived at Blair House, the presidential guest house, for four years, during which time the East Wing, an air-raid shelter, an interior movie theater, and a balcony on the south portico were added.

White House Ghosts

A walk-through of the Executive Mansion will take on some new excitement for the kids when you tell them that many people believe it is haunted by a few ghosts. (A good way to get some “living” history in there, too!) By far the most famous ghost is that of President Lincoln, but ghost hunters and former White House personnel claim he's not the only one. According to various tales and legends, the presidential mansion is haunted by the ghosts of Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Lincoln's son Willie (who died at age twelve in the White House), Presidents Jackson and Harrison, and a British soldier who was killed during the burning of the White House in 1814.

The ghost of Abigail Adams is forever attempting to hang her laundry in the grand East Room, and her ghost has been seen approaching the room with her arms out as if carrying a laundry basket. Some have said that they can smell a whiff of soap and damp cotton when her ghost is near.


When you tour the White House, remember that this is not just any museum. Videotaping and photography are not allowed. The bathrooms inside the White House are not open to the public, so it's a good idea to make a pit stop before you start the tour. The nearest restrooms and public telephones are in the White House Visitor Center.

Dolley Madison cared a great deal about the White House and planted her own garden where the Rose Garden is today. It is reported that when Edith Wilson attempted to tear up this plot of land, the ghost of Dolley Madison terrified the gardeners. Instead, the roses were planted to appease her, and she has not reappeared since then.

The ghost of Lincoln's son is said to appear in the room where he died, and his mother reported that she felt him with her in the White House. A great believer in the spirit world, she also said she could hear Thomas Jefferson playing the violin. The presence of Abraham Lincoln has been recorded throughout the White House ever since his assassination. He is said to walk through the halls and knock on the door of the Lincoln Bedroom when guests are staying there.

Even before Lincoln's ghost was said to roam the halls, White House servants had said that they could hear laughter coming from the bed where Andrew Jackson slept in the Rose Room, and Mrs. Lincoln reported that she often heard his ghost stomping and swearing. President Harrison is said to haunt the White House attic.

The White House Tour

When you tour the White House, you won't be able to have access to all of it. Generally, only seven rooms and various hallways and corridors of the White House are open to the public. The second and third floors of the White House are the private domains of the first family. The Oval Office and the Lincoln Bedroom are not open to the public.

The Library

First stop on the tour is the Library, where you'll see 2,700 books on display and a chandelier that once belonged to James Fenimore Cooper (author of The Last of the Mohicans). The Library is where the president holds private interviews.

The China Room

The next room on the tour is where examples of the table settings from each presidential administration are on display. It is interesting to note that Nancy Reagan wasn't the only first lady to cause an uproar over her china pattern choice. Mary Todd Lincoln's pattern uses a bright purple, which many thought was too royal, and caused quite a stir at the time.

The East Room

The gold-and-white East Room on the second floor has been the site of many of the mansion's biggest events, including the wedding receptions of Nellie Grant, Alice Roosevelt, and Lynda Bird Johnson. It has also been the viewing room for seven presidents' funerals, the site of Susan Ford's senior prom, and the site of President Nixon's resignation speech. During the Civil War, Union troops were housed in this room.

The famous life-size painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart that was saved by Dolley Madison as the White House burned in 1814 is also on display here. The four walls of the East Room are the oldest parts of the White House left after the fire.


The East Room is the largest room in the White House and, according to the secret service tour guide, in the nineteenth century it was the room where Abigail Adams hung the presidential laundry to dry because she didn't want people to see it hanging on the lawn (and this is now the room supposedly haunted by her ghost).

The Green Room

This room once served as Jefferson's dining room; today it serves as a parlor. The room gets its name from the green silk that has adorned its walls since the Monroe administration.

The Green Room is furnished in the federal style of the early 1800s. There's a marvelous painting of Bear Lake, New Mexico, by Georgia O'Keeffe as well as a street scene of Philadelphia that was purchased by an antiques dealer for $10 and turned out to be one of the original White House paintings.

The Blue Room

The most formal room in the White House, this is where presidents often receive guests and where the largest Christmas tree in the mansion is on display. This was also the site of President Cleveland's marriage to Frances Folsom. Cleveland, incidentally, was the only president to get married while in office.

The Red Room

In this room, the first lady traditionally does her entertaining. The Red Room features red walls and red satin chairs, as well as a painting of the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt. This was also the room in which Abraham Lincoln rescinded Confederate President Davis's citizenship during the Civil War.


The White House Web site is a wealth of information about the building and its inhabitants. You can virtually tour many of the rooms that are not open to the public, view a movie, call up its history, and read the latest news. There is also a separate kid's site, Parents might first want to tour both sites themselves, because some might find them too heavily politicized.

The State Dining Room

The dining room, which seats 140 people, is also the site of the G.P.A. Healy portrait of Lincoln, which was given to the White House by Lincoln's heirs. Carved above the fireplace mantel are the words of President John Adams from his second evening in the White House:“I Pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that shall hereafter inhabit it.”

The Vermeil Room

Also known as the Gold Room, this room was refurbished in 1991. It serves as a display room and has also been the room where first ladies have received visitors. Portraits of seven first ladies are on display here, as well as furniture from the nineteenth century.

The White House Visitor Center

You and the kids will have a more fruitful experience if you visit the White House Visitor Center. It has a number of interesting exhibits on the history of the mansion, its architecture, furnishings, and first families; there is also a thirty-minute video. Other facilities include a small gift shop and bathrooms. (The public is not allowed to use the bathrooms in the White House.) When you go through the visitor entrance, there are displays along a hallway looking out onto the Jacqueline Kennedy Gardens that explain the architectural and interior changes within the mansion over the past 150 years.


In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy decided to make the White House the showplace it once was. She sent out a worldwide request for original furnishings from the house, and restored many of the rooms to their earlier splendor. To preserve the historical decor, Congress passed an act declaring all furnishings and decorations used by the first family during their stay to be the property of the White House.

Location and Hours

The White House is not far from the McPherson Square (Blue or Orange lines), Metro Center (Blue, Orange, or Red lines) or Federal Triangle (Blue or Orange lines) Metro stations; the visitor center is accessible from the Federal Triangle station. The White House Visitor Center is located at the southeast corner of 15th and E Streets. The White House is a little further up, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

The visitor center is open from 7:30 A.M. until 4 P.M., seven days a week. White House self-guided tours of up to ten people at a time are available between 7:30 and 11:30 A.M. Tuesday through Saturday (excluding federal holidays). Don't forget that you'll need to obtain tickets in advance through your congressional representative's office. They are accepted up to six months in advance, and are scheduled on a first come, first served basis approximately one month in advance of the requested date. The White House is occasionally closed for official functions, so call ahead for scheduling on the twenty-four-hour line at 202-456-7041.


If your tour is early, you might consider having a leisurely breakfast at Old Ebbitt Grill (see Chapter 14), which is almost across the street, or an exquisite breakfast in the Willard Room of the Willard InterContinental Hotel. Nothing else nearby is open that early.

Before the tour, you'll need to go through a security check that includes walking through a metal detector and having your belongings X-rayed. The list of prohibited items is long and can be found on the White House Web site. Note that there are no storage facilities on or around the complex. Visitors who arrive with prohibited items will not be permitted to enter the White House.

For the Physically Challenged

Visitors with special needs can be easily accommodated. Those scheduled for tours who require the loan of a wheelchair should notify the officer at the visitors entrance upon arrival. Note that they don't take reservations. Tours for visually- or hearing-impaired groups of ten or more may be requested through one's member of Congress. The Visitor Center TDD (telephone device for the deaf) is 202-456-2121. Guide animals are permitted in the White House.

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