By Robert Klara
It would no doubt come as a surprise to the 1.5 million people who visit the White House each year that the hallowed halls in which they walk are actually only sixty years old. Wait—didn’t George Washington order the mansion built back in 1792? Indeed he did: And Harry Truman ordered it rebuilt in 1949. Plagued by decades of neglect and dangerous overloading, the country’s most storied residence came very near to collapsing on the thirty-third president, a fact that required a gut renovation. For whatever reason, this incredible event never quite made it to the history textbooks—one of the reasons I decided it deserved a closer look in the pages of The Hidden White House. Below, a sampling of images from the most ambitious home improvement project in U.S. history.
Summoned by Truman to investigate the White House’s haunting creaks and penchant for trembling, government engineers discovered this enormous crack on the second floor. There were many like it.
Legendary contractor John McShain (“The Man Who Built Washington”) poses fifth from right with his building team on a chilly day in 1950. Workmen were demolishing the White House to the outer walls at this stage, dumping the debris into the chute in the center of the photo.
Bracing the original walls with 110 tons of reinforcing steel, engineers would excavate the White House’s new basement down another 22 feet. At this stage, Truman called the mansion “nothing but a shell.”
The deeper foundations permitted the architects to give the White House two new subterranean levels, shown here. The heavily fortified “Tunnel,” at right, would allow the president quick access from the West Wing to the new bomb shelter.
As the completion date nears in March of 1952, electricians run the juice through one of the East Room’s 1,200-lb. chandeliers. Four years earlier, shaking chandeliers were one of the first signs that the White House was in trouble.
All photos are public domain, courtesy of the Harry S. Truman Library
ROBERT KLARA is the author of the critically acclaimed book FDR’s Funeral Train. Salon called him “one of the most engaging writers you’ll ever read.” His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, American Heritage, and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book is The Hidden White House.