When the Trumans moved into the White House in 1945, they soon discovered the old mansion was on the brink of collapse. The floors swayed as they walked on them, joints popped and cracked, and rats even scurried through holes in the walls and across the floors. While Harry, Bess and Margaret Truman all joked in their letters and diary entries about hearing the “ghosts” of presidents past, these mysterious noises were actually telltale signs that the White House was disintegrating.
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum is telling the incredible story of the largest White House renovation in history this year through the temporary exhibition Saving the White House: Truman’s Extreme Makeover, on display through 2017.
The exhibition gives visitors the chance to peer through the halls of the decrepit White House when the Trumans moved in, gives an insider’s perspective into the renovation itself, then shows off the final remodeled mansion the Trumans moved back into in 1952.
The White House in Disrepair
How neglected had the White House been? Harry Truman wrote the following to Bess in June 1945:
“Just two months ago today, I was a reasonably happy and contented Vice President. Maybe you can remember that far back too. But things have changed so much it hardly seems real. I sit here in this old house and work on foreign affairs, read reports, and work on speeches—all the while listening to the ghosts walk up and down the hallway and even right here in the study. The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth—I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin. Or James Buchanan and Franklin Pierce deciding which was the more useless to the country. And when Millard Fillmore and Chester Arthur join in for place and show the din is almost unbearable. But I still get some work done.”
By 1948, jokes about the White House ghosts gave way to true fears of the executive mansion’s dangerous structural condition. After Margaret Truman’s piano leg pierced the floor of her sitting room, it was confirmed that the White House was on the verge of collapse.
Harry Truman wrote to his daughter Margaret in 1948, “Wouldn’t it have been nice sometime when your ma was having the DAR’s or the Lady Elks and Eagles for me to have dropped in informally in my marble bathtub? Would have gotten a headline to say the least don’t you think?”
The White House Gutted
President Truman was advised to move into a safer part of the mansion (and eventually out of the home completely) while engineers investigated. The conclusions were dramatic, including rendering the entire second floor as unsafe and the interior load-bearing walls as grossly inadequate. Some argued to simply tear down the White House and build a new executive mansion, but the Trumans fought to preserve the historic building in every way they could. The renovation plan was designed to maintain the outer walls but rebuild the interior to make it safe for generations to come.
Truman began planning what would become the largest White House renovation in history.
Once the renovation began, debris from the White House lived on through a variety of new reincarnations. Truman gave his Cabinet members paperweights made out of pine removed from the White House. The president himself received a desk ornament in the shape of the Washington Monument made out of a marble fragment from the White House. The general public even got their chance to bring a piece of the White House into their own houses through a souvenir program where people only had to pay a small fee for shipping. Some even paid the $1 cost to order “one brick, as nearly whole as possible” from the original White House.
The Saving the White House exhibit features insider images from National Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe who had unprecedented access to the White House renovation and the presidency. Peer through the gutted White House to see how workers built an infrastructure to lay the foundation for generations of presidents.
The New White House
More than two years after the Trumans moved out of the White House, construction was nearing completion. Bess Truman offered input on the décor of the residence, while architects and decorators designed the style and furnishings of the state floor. The exhibition includes samples from fabrics used as wall coverings along with photos of the finalized room interiors.
When the Trumans were formally welcomed to tour the new White House and move back in, they were offered a symbolic key to the White House, which is also featured in the temporary exhibition.
The project rang in at $5.7 million (approximately $52,690,000 in today’s dollars), a cost that Harry Truman thought was excessive. He wrote the following:
“Bess & I looked over the East Room, Green Room, Blue Room, Red Room and State Dining Room. They are lovely. So is the hall and state stairway…With all the trouble and worry it is worth it—but not 5 ½ million dollars! If I could have had charge of the construction it would have been done for half the money and in half the time!”
Nonetheless, the White House was preserved for generations to come.
Make plans to visit Saving the White House, on display through 2017 at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, to learn even more fascinating details about this story, view artifacts from the original White House and the remodel, and explore interactive displays about this famous home renovation. Museum admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for students and $3 for youth. Truman Library Institute Members are always free.
Saving the White House was made possible thanks to generous support from JE Dunn Construction Company.
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