In the early days of the United States, before the White House became the iconic residence of the nation’s leaders, both George Washington and John Adams had their presidential terms, beginning in 1789 and 1797, respectively. However, White House receptions did not commence until the year 1800. Let’s delve into the intriguing history of where the first two presidents of the United States called home during their early years in office.
From 1789 to 1790, New York City served as the nation’s capital. A week before his inauguration on April 30, 1789, George Washington arranged a presidential residence. On Manhattan’s east side, at 3 Cherry Street, he rented a lavish three-story brick residence on Congress’s behalf. The annual rent amounted to $845, a considerable sum.
This Cherry Street residence accommodated more than twenty individuals, including paid servants, indentured servants, presidential officials, and slaves. Among them were George and Martha Washington, their two grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington (“Washy”) Parke Custis, and the President himself.
However, as Washington’s family grew and his staff expanded, the Cherry Street residence quickly proved inadequate. Secretaries found themselves sharing cramped rooms, and state dinners could host no more than 14 guests. Seeking a more spacious and suitable dwelling, Washington decided to relocate.
In February 1790, George Washington discovered an ideal solution to his residence predicament. The French envoy, Count de Moustier, was preparing to return to France and had decided to relinquish his mansion, located at 39-41 Broadway. Washington, recognizing the opportunity, assumed the lease and moved into this splendid four-story mansion.
Situated near Trinity Church and just north of Bowling Green, this Broadway residence was regarded as “the finest house in the city and the most fashionable quarter.” Construction had commenced in 1787, and a visiting tourist exclaimed, “By far the grandest buildings I ever saw” when he beheld the mansion and its surroundings.
The interior design of the residence received personal attention from President Washington himself. Green accents abounded, with green silk furniture and a green carpet adorned with white flowers. Twenty-three glass flowerpots were scattered throughout the residence, reflecting Washington’s affinity for greenery.
To illuminate his home, George Washington introduced an innovative lighting solution: a new type of whale oil lamp that produced twelve times more light than traditional candles. This choice made his residence one of the best-lit in the entire city.
The Presidential Stay and the Residence Act
George Washington resided in the Broadway mansion for a total of six months, from February to August of 1790. He made significant decisions during his stay, including signing the Residence Act into law in July of that year. This legislation mandated the relocation of the capital to Philadelphia for a decade, pending the construction of the permanent Federal City, which would later become Washington, D.C.
Over the years, the fate of the 39-41 Broadway mansion underwent several transformations. By the 1820s, it had become the upscale Mansion House Hotel. Subsequently, it served as a boarding house before being dismantled. In its place, a 36-story office building emerged in 1928, which still stands today, housing a drugstore and medical offices.
Top 10 Facts About The White House
- Construction of the White House, designed by James Hoban, began in 1792. Many of the workers responsible for its construction were enslaved African Americans. It wasn’t until years later, in 1800, that President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, became the first residents.
- When the White House was completed in 1800, it was painted with a grayish hue. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that it was painted white to cover the scorch marks left by the British during the War of 1812.
- During the War of 1812, British forces set fire to the White House on August 24, 1814. President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison had to evacuate hastily. Fortunately, the exterior walls and framework survived, allowing for the reconstruction.
- There have long been rumors of secret tunnels beneath the White House. While some exist for security and utility purposes, there is no evidence of a secret escape tunnel for presidents.
- President John Quincy Adams received an unusual gift from the Marquis de Lafayette: an alligator. Adams kept the alligator in a bathroom in the East Room and enjoyed surprising guests with it.
- First Lady Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden on the White House grounds in 2009. However, it’s lesser known that First Lady Edith Roosevelt, wife of Theodore Roosevelt, established the first flower garden there in 1902.
- The White House Easter Egg Roll is an annual tradition dating back to 1878 when President Rutherford B. Hayes opened the White House lawn to children for an Easter Monday event.
- The White House has its movie theater, known as the White House Family Theater. It was originally a cloakroom but was converted into a theater by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1942.
- The iconic Truman Balcony, where presidents often make public appearances, was added during President Harry Truman’s renovation of the White House in the 1940s. It is also the location from which President Nixon waved goodbye to the public before resigning in 1974.
- There have been numerous reports of ghostly sightings and strange occurrences in the White House. Some believe that the spirits of past presidents, including Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson, still linger in the residence.
Presidential Residences Beyond the White House
The debate centers around the idea of having multiple official residences for the President of the United States. While the White House in Washington, D.C., has historically been the primary presidential residence, some argue that having secondary official residences in different parts of the country could provide benefits. Advocates suggest that these secondary residences could serve as a way for presidents to connect with different regions of the country and promote unity. However, opponents argue that such an arrangement would be impractical, costly, and could diminish the significance of the White House as the symbol of the presidency.
The Role of Historic Preservation in the White House
This debate pertains to the extent to which historical preservation should influence the White House’s appearance and functionality. Some argue that the White House should remain a living museum, preserving its historical features and layouts to provide visitors with an authentic glimpse into its rich history. Others contend that the White House should adapt to modern needs and technologies, even if it means altering some aspects of its historical architecture and design. This debate raises questions about how to balance historical authenticity with practical functionality.
Accessibility and Public Tours of the White House
The question of how accessible the White House should be to the public is an ongoing debate. Some argue that the White House should continue offering public tours, allowing citizens to experience this iconic symbol of American democracy. However, others suggest that the security concerns associated with open tours may outweigh the benefits and that limiting access or enhancing security measures might be necessary. This debate explores the delicate balance between public accessibility and presidential security.
Presidential Residence during Renovations
The issue of where the President should reside during extensive renovations to the White House is a subject of debate. When significant renovations are required, should the President temporarily relocate to another official residence, or should they continue to work and live in the White House, even during construction? The debate raises practical questions about logistics, security, and the preservation of historical artifacts while renovations take place.
The Environmental Impact of the White House
While the White House is a symbol of American democracy, some argue that it should also set an example for sustainability and environmental responsibility. Debates have arisen about whether the White House should adopt more eco-friendly practices, such as renewable energy sources, energy-efficient technologies, and sustainable landscaping. Proponents argue that this would align with the government’s broader environmental goals, while critics express concerns about the cost, feasibility, and potential disruption of implementing such changes in a historical landmark like the White House.
The White House stands as an enduring symbol, but its significance is not static. It evolves with each debate, renovation, and adaptation, mirroring the ever-changing landscape of American democracy.