History of the White House
History of the White House and Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C., has not always looked like it does today. Once it was
a sleepy little village with only a few buildings. There were no good roads into the
village, and no good docks for boats.
About two hundred years ago, when the United States was a brand-new
country, people began to talk about where the president should live. Should the president
live in the North or the South? Should the president’s house be a palace, like kings
live in, or a simpler house?
White House, 1866
White House in our times
While Congress debated what to build and where to build
it, our first president, George Washington, lived in three houses. The first two were in
New York City. The third was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Finally, Washington decided to
compromise. He picked a patch of land on the Potomac River.
Both Maryland and Virginia gave land for the new capital. The land was
on the border of the North and the South. At that time, there were no western states!
George Washington named the land the District of Columbia, in honor of Christopher
President Washington hired people to plan a new city. Washington, D.C.,
is one of the few cities in the world that were designed before they were built. First,
Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott made maps of the land. Then Pierre Charles
l’Enfant decided where to put the roads. Washington decided to put the Capitol Building
on a hill at one end of the city, and the president’s house on a hill at the other end.
Next it was time to decide what kind of house to build for the
president. Thomas Jefferson suggested having a contest. He advertised the contest in
newspapers across the country. A committee picked a simple but elegant design by James
Hoban, a young Irish American architect.
The first stone was laid on October 13, 1792. It took eight years to
finish enough of the house to make it livable. The Capitol Building wasn’t completed
yet, and congressmen lived in boardinghouses surrounded by farmland. John Adams, the
second president of the United States, moved into a cold, damp White House in November
1800. Abigail Adams hung her laundry up to dry in the East Room. She thought it would be
bad manners to hang the president’s laundry outside.
By the time our third president, Thomas Jefferson, moved into the White
House in 1801, most of the outside structures were finished. The White House was the
largest residential house in America! Jefferson ordered wallpaper and furniture from
France. Every president since has ordered special things for the house. Today, you can see
chairs that people sat on more than one hundred years ago! During this time, the building
was called the President’s Palace, and then the President’s House.
Then James Madison was elected president. During his term of office,
the United States went to war with England. It was the War of 1812. As the British troops
got close to Washington, Madison’s wife, Dolley, ordered a carriage to pick her up and
take her to safety. But she would not leave the house until two men agreed to take down
the famous portrait of George Washington. The troops set fire to the Capitol Building and
the White House. Today, the picture that Dolley saved is the only thing that has been in
the White House since it first opened. When the war was over, the house was rebuilt and
repainted white to cover the smoke marks. People began to call it the White House.
Adapted from “The Story of the White House” by Kate Waters