The White House is one of the most iconic buildings in America. Construction was begun on it in 1792, and it has been the home of every U.S. president from John Adams (our second president) to today. It is a very historically significant building and a national architectural treasure. However, very little of the original building actually still exists. This is because of a series of three disasters that have befallen over its 200-year history. What you see of the White House today is virtually all new. One has to look very hard to see any bits of the original.
Disaster #1: The British Are Coming (Again)
The United States went to war with Great Britain for a second time from 1812 to 1814 in a war that became known as the War of 1812. During this war, the British were able to briefly gain control of Washington, D.C. and burned the White House in a symbol of triumph over the Americans. While their win was short-lived and the Americans ultimately won the war, the damage to the still relatively new White House was extensive. Most of the wooden interior was destroyed. In fact, the only things that are known to have survived the fire are a painting of George Washington that then-first lady Dolly Madison took with her when she left the building as the British were approaching, and the exterior stone walls, which can still be seen today.
Disaster #2: Fire in the West Wing
Most of the West Wing and Oval Office were damaged by fire on Christmas Eve in 1929. While the West Wing was the idea of Thomas Jefferson over 100 years before, it was only tinkered with until the Teddy Roosevelt administration at the beginning of the 20th century, when it was finally completed. President William Howard Taft added the Oval Office to the West Wing later. So neither area was an original part of the White House, though parts of the West Wing did go back to Jefferson’s time (and Jefferson was there when the White House was being constructed and was later our third president). All of those antique features, as well as the more modern ones, were destroyed in this fire and had to be rebuilt and replaced. So even the newer portions of the White House aren’t truly original.
Disaster #3: Old Age
Being such an important building to the national character of the United States, you would think the White House would have been very well maintained over the centuries. This was not the case, though. In 1948, when the White House was just over 150 years old, it was very run down, and was eventually declared structurally unsound. President Harry Truman convinced Congress to not condemn the building and to allow a total renovation instead. He had to temporarily move out until the renovation was completed in 1952. During the renovation, the entire interior of the White House was removed and replaced with an all new infrastructure.
So much of the original White House has been destroyed in various disasters over the centuries. It is a wonder there is any original part of it left. However, the original exterior stone walls on the original part of the building (not later additions) is part of the original White House. In fact, these walls are the only original part of the building left. The good news is that they are on the outside of the building, and so can be easily seen by the public as they walk by outside. Whether you go inside or not, you can still see a glimpse of the 1792 building any time you see the White House, and that is a wonderful tribute to American history and the people who brought the original building into the world.