Nearly every president from John Adams to George W. Bush has shaped not just policy while in the White House but also the White House itself — from creating an exercise suite to building the West Wing and the Oval Office.
Come Jan. 20, when President-elect Barack Obama and his family assume a four-year lease on the executive mansion, they will no doubt begin to build a legacy of their own for future lodgers to enjoy.
“Presidents will do what they will,” said William Bushong, historian of the nonprofit White House Historical Association. Nevertheless, Bushong added, “it would be a lot more difficult today than it once was to arbitrarily modify public areas.
“The family living quarters are a different matter,” he said, noting that presidents can use an allowance from Congress for household expenses to redecorate the 132-room mansion, which features 16 guest rooms and 35 bathrooms.
Although a weakened economy could curb their tastes, the Obamas might follow in the footsteps of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who spent nearly $400,000 on redecorating soon after moving in.
Clinton opted not to use the $50,000 appropriated by Congress for the renovation project. Led by Kaki Hockersmith, an interior designer from Little Rock, Ark., the work was instead financed by private donations to the White House Historical Association, and much of the fabric and other materials for the curtains were donated by manufacturers.
The three White House kitchens, meanwhile, have catered to their own share of different tastes. With five full-time chefs, the main kitchen is able to serve as many as 140 dinner guests and prepare hors d’oeuvres for more than 1,000 visitors. For late-night snacks, the first family also has access to a modest serving pantry in the living quarters.
Yet for all the conveniences, privacy is often a scarce commodity.
“It’s like living in a museum,” Ronald Reagan told me about halfway through his eight-year presidency.
“You may have noticed that privacy is in quite short supply around this place,” Reagan added over cocktails in the White House Library. “Nancy and I get away whenever we can. If not for Camp David, we’d go stir crazy.”
The Reagans confined their alterations to adding an exercise room to the 55,000-square-foot mansion, which city planner and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant situated diagonally from the Capitol, just under two miles away.
In 1791, L’Enfant envisioned a vast palace, about four times the size of the current structure, for what was then called the “president’s house.” But George Washington, who took a keen interest in the birth of the capital that bore his name, demurred.
James Hoban proposed a more modest design, based on the home of the Duke of Leinster in Dublin. Still, for the ensuing seven decades, the White House remained the largest house in the United States.
Whatever it takes for the Obamas to fashion 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. into an abode that suits their needs, they will be in far better shape than Abigail Adams, who arrived from Philadelphia in November of 1800.
In “Washington,” his 2008 account of the making of the nation’s capital, Fergus Bordewich says that although the Adamses moved into a grand residence, it hardly qualified as a comfy one.
“Not a single room was finished,” Bordewich noted. “Closet doors were missing. A three-hole ‘necessary’ had barely been finished in time for [Abigail’s] arrival. The main staircase had yet to be installed. No fewer than 13 fires had to be kept burning just to make the damp place habitable.”
After the British burned the White House in 1814, James Madison and James Monroe rebuilt the structure, and it has been evolving ever since. Andrew Jackson added the North Portico. James Polk installed gas lighting in 1848. And, some 40 years later, Benjamin Harrison approved electric lighting.
In 1901, after Theodore Roosevelt moved in a month shy of his 43rd birthday, he added the West and East wings while ditching the Victorian-era décor. He also officially changed the home’s name to the White House, long a popular nickname for the whitewashed mansion. (The term “West Wing” first came into wide use in the 1930s.)
In 1909, William Howard Taft expanded the West Wing and created the first Oval Office. Just over a quarter of a century later, Franklin Roosevelt shifted it to the southeast corner of the complex, adjacent to the Rose Garden, where it remains today. He also expanded the East Wing while adding a bomb shelter during World War II.
Harry Truman, for his part, added the balcony that overlooks the South Portico. And for several years, the Trumans lived across Pennsylvania Avenue in the Blair House while the edifice, deemed unstable, was gutted and rebuilt.
First lady Jacqueline Kennedy replaced the Truman-era décor in 1961, restoring the White House to its 19th-century splendor. And some three decades later, Hillary Clinton added a soundproof hi-fi room for her husband, Bill.
First lady Laura Bush later oversaw the refurbishment of the Lincoln Bedroom, funded by the WHHA. The room now features a boldly patterned Renaissance revival carpet and new gilded window valances. The wallpaper follows the diamond pattern found in historic engravings and paintings but forgoes the Victorian color palette for an off-white hue favored by the first lady.
Obama will also inherit from President Bush a recently rebuilt Situation Room and press briefing room, and he will have an array of offices at his disposal.
While the Oval Office has been the preferred work space of Bush, as it was for Reagan, other presidents opted for cozier work sites.
Richard Nixon often repaired to a spacious hideaway in the adjacent Executive Office Building, where he installed his infamous taping system.
Jimmy Carter listened to classical music while working in a small office — located halfway between the Oval Office and that of the chief of staff — that has since been converted into a dining area.
Both Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton, however, liked to work in a snug study that abuts the Oval Office.
It remains to be seen where Obama will prefer to toil or what aesthetic changes he and his family will make to the White House. But as the 43rd president to live there since John Adams took up residence in 1800, he is sure to carry on the first family tradition of leaving his own unique stamp on the president’s house.