Why Is the White House White?
It isn't just for looks.
The White House: three words that bring the same image to mind for every American (and many citizens of other countries as well!) We picture a stately Neo-Classical building, snowy-white and crowned with the Stars and Stripes. It’s true that the moniker of the president’s home is both a name and a descriptor, but the house built on the site selected by George Washington was not originally built with its modern name or color in mind. The cornerstone for the forthcoming President’s House was laid in 1792, and John and Abigail Adams were the first presidential family to occupy the still-unfinished building in 1800. Try your luck at this U.S. presidential trivia everyone gets wrong.
During the War of 1812, British soldiers set fire to what was then known as the President’s Palace, the President’s House, or the Executive Mansion, completely gutting the inside. You might have heard that the building was painted white to cover up the scorch marks from that 1814 attack, but that famous white color actually predates the fire damage. Six years into construction, in 1798—when the outer walls were finally finished—a lime-based whitewash was applied to the outside to weather-proof the house. The walls are made of soft, permeable Virginian sandstone, and the whitewash prevents water from being absorbed into the porous stone, then freezing and cracking during the cold D.C. winter. By the time President Adams moved in, the White House was already being colloquially referred to as such. As early as 1812, Congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote in a letter to a colleague, “There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President’s.” The trouble he referred to was the impending war with Great Britain. A massive landmark in D.C., it is no surprise that the building earned this nickname, not least because of the continual refreshing of the whitewash in order to keep the house protected from the weather. Don’t miss these other 12 mind-blowing facts you never knew about the White House.
The President’s House continued to evolve over the years. The original architect, James Hoban, rebuilt the house after the fire and it was re-whitewashed and ready when President James Monroe occupied the building in 1817. The year after, the President’s House was covered with white lead paint, which lasted longer than whitewash, and the South and North Porticos followed in the 1820s under Presidents Monroe and Jackson. Many other renovations have been carried out on the building since, from President Truman’s very necessary structural renovations in the 1950s to the addition of both indoor and outdoor swimming pools (Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Gerald Ford respectively). Find out what perks U.S. Presidents get to keep after leaving office.
However, the biggest changes came from President Theodore Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, he installed electric lights, rebuilt the East Terrace, and constructed the building that would later become the West Wing. He also made the President’s House unofficial nickname its official one. Nearly every U.S. state had an “executive mansion” for its governor; by officially naming it the “White House,” Roosevelt believed that the building would be immediately recognizable as the residence of the President of the United States. The White House gets a touch-up most years, but it received its most recent full re-paint job in 2019. Full coats are usually applied every 4-6 years. Each full coat requires about 570 gallons of specialty German-made paint (the 2019 paint job was revealed to be completed in Duron’s “Whisper White” shade) which is designed to preserve historic buildings and can cost up to $150 per gallon! For more White House trivia, find out the real reason the Oval Office is an oval.
- History.com: “This Day In History: August 24th, 1814: British Troops Set Fire to the White House”
- WhiteHouse.gov: “The White House Building”
- The White House Historical Association: “Why is the White House white?”
- FOX Business: “White House’s new paint job: Color, cost, and other fun facts”