The White House and the Presidency

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture Two Guide

Take a fresh look at the famous house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a building whose name has become synonymous with the presidency itself: the White House. Take a virtual tour of this magnificent American institution and discover the architectural flourishes that make it so special. Then turn to examine a pair of presidential memorials.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• The history of the White House
• The West Wing
• Visiting the White House
• The Jefferson Memorial
• The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

The History of the White House

The original White House took about eight years to complete and cost about $230,000. The workers who built it were a mixture of enslaved and free African American men and immigrant laborers, mostly from Ireland and Scotland.

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The main structure of the house was brick, with a façade of Virginia sandstone, which was whitewashed to help seal the porous material. That is how the White House came to be white, though it didn’t acquire its name until later. John Adams was the first president to occupy the building.

Adams ran for reelection in 1800, just a few months after moving into the president’s house, but was defeated by Thomas Jefferson. The house was barely a year old when Jefferson arrived in March 1801, but he made several additions and repairs to the building. The most important and enduring were two colonnades, which today connect the presidential residence to the East Wing and West Wing.

By the time Jefferson left in 1809, the house had a new roof, fireproof storage rooms, a grand staircase, a wine cellar, service bells, an upgraded kitchen, indoor privies, and a manicured garden. The next residents of the house were James and Dolley Madison. They would also, technically speaking, be the last: British forces burned the White House during the War of 1812.

Architect James Hoban supervised the building’s reconstruction and it was ready for occupation by President James Monroe in 1817. From 1830 until 1902, most of the changes to the White House were to the interior.

The next president to expand the building was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt’s most noticeable contribution to the building was the addition of the West Wing. Its purpose was to move the bulk of the president’s staff out of the residence and into dedicated, much needed office space.

Then, fire struck again, this time confined to the West Wing. President Herbert Hoover took the opportunity to redesign the wing and add air conditioning. The final redesign and expansion was completed under President Franklin Roosevelt. Most notably, this renovation moved the Oval Office to its present location, on the southeast corner of the ground floor of the West Wing.

A small East Wing had also been added to the White House by Theodore Roosevelt as a formal guest entrance. During World War II, it was expanded, in part because they were running out of room in the West Wing, and in part as a cover for constructing an underground bunker and emergency operations center. When the East Wing was completed, Eleanor Roosevelt established her office there on the second floor, and the first lady’s office has remained in the East Wing ever since. By the end of World War II, the White House as we know it today was complete.

The West Wing

Floor plan of the white house west wing, first floor
The layout plan of the first floor of the West Wing.

The West Wing is not generally open for tours. This floor contains the Oval Office and a private study and dining area for the president. The president’s chief of staff, the vice president, the national security advisor, and the press secretary all have offices on this floor as well, with several smaller offices for senior staff.

The cabinet room is in the northeast corner of the wing. Each of the 20 brown leather chairs has a small brass plaque on the back, assigning it to a specific cabinet department. The president’s chair is a few inches taller than the rest.

The East Wing

White house east wing entrance with Christmas decorations
Christmas time at the East Wing entrance of the White House.

If you do visit the White House, you will likely enter the building on the opposite side, through the East Wing’s lobby. This entrance leads into the Garden Room, which looks out onto the South Lawn, including the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden. The South Lawn is where the famous annual Easter Egg Roll takes place.

From the Garden Room, visitors travel along the East Colonnade. Unlike the West Colonnade, this long walkway has been enclosed, but large glass windows still offer a view across the lawn. The room to the right of the walkway is the Family Theater. This is one of the rooms where the first family and their guests relax together. The president and staff also occasionally use the room to rehearse important speeches.

The colonnade leads to the visitors’ foyer and eventually to the East Room. The East Room, the largest room in the residence, has been used for many purposes over the years, but it is now mainly used as a public reception room.

From the East Room, you enter the Cross Hall. The walls are adorned by presidential portraits, but don’t forget to look up at the ceiling. The glass chandeliers, although added during President Truman’s term of office, are antiques made around the year 1775. This room is often used for dual press conferences when the president is being visited by another head of state.

To the south of the Cross Hall are the Green, Blue, and Red Rooms. The Green Room has hosted a number of historic events. The large, oval Blue Room is the formal receiving room for White House guests. Finally, the Red Room was used by the Adams and Jefferson families as a breakfast room, but in the Madisons’ day, it became Dolley Madison’s drawing room. In the years since, it has alternately been used as a sitting room or a dining room for small parties.

The last of the rooms open to the public is the State Dining Room. This room seats up to 140 guests and has been used as such for most of its existence.

Visiting the White House

If you wish to see the White House in person, you’ll have to do some preparation. You need to submit a tour request through your member of congress between three weeks and three months in advance of your trip, and tours are first come, first served. If you are a citizen of a foreign country, you can submit a request through your nation’s D.C. embassy.

For the most part, tours are only available Tuesday through Saturday mornings, though the schedule is subject to change depending on the White House schedule. All guests need a valid government‑issued photo ID to enter. For foreign citizens, it must be your passport.

Do not bring your purse or backpack. They are prohibited for security reasons. Do bring your smartphone or camera. Still photography is allowed, but not video recording. For other rules and restrictions, check the White House website.

The Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.
Jefferson is surrounded by excerpts of his most famous and important writings.

The National Mall features the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, along with two memorials dedicated to presidents on the opposite side from the White House. The first of these is the Jefferson Memorial. The memorial was designed by John Russell Pope.

The Jefferson Memorial is very similar to the Lincoln Memorial—an open, temple‑like structure with a huge statue of the president inside. Jefferson is surrounded by excerpts of his most famous and important writings. These include the Declaration of Independence, the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, and a number of others. Around the inside rim of the rotunda is a quote that perhaps encapsulates them all: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial in Washington D.C.
The F.D.R. memorial is a winding path through seven and a half acres of statues, fountains, and inscriptions.

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is about halfway between the memorials to Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson, in the area known as West Potomac Park. Designed by a landscape architect named Lawrence Halprin, it is less like a temple and it is more like a statuary garden. It is a winding path through seven and a half acres of statues, fountains, and inscriptions.

It is divided into four areas—one for each of Roosevelt’s terms in office, starting with 1933 and the Great Depression, through to 1945, World War II, and Roosevelt’s death. Although the monument was designed in the early 1970s, funding issues delayed construction until the 1990s.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Visiting the White House
The Jefferson Memorial
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial