Building on History: A secret the White House will take to the grave

In this regular series, we explore the history of housing and residential construction in the context of current events.

All eyes are on the White House, and it’s not just because of the stream of executive actions delivered in the first month of the Trump administration. Indeed, many are curious what the new First Family will do with the place. The White House living quarters get a refresher as often as the presidential administration changes, as much to show off new designers as to ensure a president can kick back in a favorite chair occasionally. Even the Oval Office gets something of a sprucing up — already, President Donald Trump has changed the curtains, swapped in a different rug and moved some of the art around.

Upgrades of any kind turn our taxpaying heads. After all, we like to think we own a piece of the place. (We’re paying for those changes! It’s the People’s House! Well, sort of.) Perhaps we’d feel less attached if we knew that the walls being repainted (again) weren’t holding as many time-honored secrets as we thought.

In honor of Presidents Day 2017, here’s some news you can use:

The presidential residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t the first White House. (That one burned down in August 1814, courtesy of the British). And, if you want to get technical about it, it’s not the second one, either. While most presidents have simply swapped in new fixtures and finishes, one took it over the top. And with good reason.

When Harry Truman took office in 1945, the White House was in desperate need of repair following more than a century of bad fixer-upper jobs, uncoordinated modernization efforts and disinterested maintenance. As journalist Robert Klara, author of "The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence" (St. Martin's Press, 2014)explains, Truman ordered a complete overhaul: adding a deeper and more effective foundation; implementing a structural steel frame in place of wood; and replacing cracked walls and drooping ceilings — gutting nearly everything within the signature white-painted sandstone exterior walls.

Second-floor corridor, Jan. 3, 1950

The work continued from 1949 to 1952. Historically significant material pulled from the building was saved or repurposed. Waste with the potential for reuse was temporarily stored nearby. Unsentimental waste, including many of the wood beams, bricks, fasteners, pipes and more, was transported elsewhere.

In his book, Klara describes the deconstruction and disposal process as “a sticky little matter the commission was not eager to discuss.” Not all waste, it thought, was worth saving. As it was, White House officials at the time worried that making the disposal process too public would encourage people to go searching for the buried treasure. (If that’s what you want to call the remnants of a dusty interior masonry wall, anyway.)

White House Lower Corridor, Feb. 14, 1950

Still, the project made news headlines, and, as expected, Americans wanted in on the action. For a time, the commission sold some scraps as souvenirs, from small paperweights made up of essentially trash (the most popular) to bricks and wood that buyers turned into everything from walking sticks to fireplaces, Klara explains.

Beyond what was spread to the wind through the souvenir program, archived for posterity, reinstalled in the upgraded interior or given as gifts to gain influence or offer reward, there is plenty of speculation as to just where the pieces of the second White House interior ended up. And that's among the more intriguing Washington myths and legends long beguiling this D.C. resident–reporter.

“The dismemberment and dumping of the White House’s elegant interiors was obviously not the image that the commission wanted Americans to see, so ultimately it was a story that was not told."

Robert Klara

From "The Hidden White House"

Klara points to a few possible locations: Fort Myer, which the Orlando Sentinel has described as “the likeliest final resting place of most of the old White House.” Most of the waste material — so, most of what was pulled from the house, as it became easier to throw product away than to recycle it as the project wore on — was dumped there as waste and is where it (supposedly) remains today. Fort Myer, along with nearby Fort Belvoir, in Virginia, also received materials that each put to use on projects for its own built space, including a roller skating rink. D.C’s Rock Creek Park is also said to be home to a pile of leftover materials sent for a project there.

Bedroom and sitting room, Feb. 27, 1950

Given that the White House's preservation game on the renovation project was weak (at least by today's standards), it’s likely that second interior's fixtures, fittings, finishes and building materials live on beyond the sites Klara mentions. But exactly where is one secret (of many) that the White House will likely be taking with it to the grave.

For further reading, check out Klara’s book here and view more images of the White House overhaul from the U.S. National Archives here.

White House shell, May 17, 1950


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