Posts Tagged ‘Blair House’

The White House – South Portico

I have taken lunchtime bike rides to, and subsequently written in this blog about, a number of things that are either part of or in some way connected to the White House.  I’ve written about Blair House, the White House’s guest house.  I’ve written about the White House’s annual gingerbread exhibit.  I’ve written about the White House Peace Vigil in Lafayette Square Park adjacent to the White House.  I’ve written about the post-presidential residences of former presidents Woodrow Wilson and Barack Obama.  I’ve also written about a secret entrance to the White House.  I even have a page about presidents and other politicians riding bikes.  But despite having been there countless times, I have never written about the actual White House itself. 

So during today’s lunchtime bike ride I rode by the building (MAP), which at various times in history has been known as the “President’s Palace,” the “President’s House,” and the “Executive Mansion.”  It wasn’t until 1901 that President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave it its current name.  And then after I got back I learned more about what is now known as the White House.

President George Washington chose the site for the White House in 1791. The cornerstone was laid in 1792 and construction began soon after.  Irish-born architect James Hoban, who won the right to design it by winning a competition in 1792, designed the neoclassical architectural-style building.  He modelled his design on Leinster House in Ireland, which today houses the Irish legislature.  It took eight years to construct the building, with completion occurring in 1800.  However, President Washington died in 1799, meaning he never set even set foot in the completed building.  Its first residents were President John Adams and his wife Abigail, and they moved in before the house was actually finished. His term in office was almost over by the time they moved in, and only six rooms had been finished.

The White House has changed significantly over the years.  When President Thomas Jefferson moved into it in 1801, he had the building expanded outward, creating the two colonnades that were meant to conceal stables and storage.  Then in 1814 (during the War of 1812) the interior was destroyed and much of the exterior was charred by the British Army, necessitating that it be rebuilt.  In 1817, during President James Monroe’s administration, the south and north porticos were added.  The West Wing was added in 1901 during President William McKinley’s presidency, and during President William Howard Taft’s administration, the Oval Office was first constructed in 1909.  Other expansions, additions and remodeling projects took place under Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft.  And during the administration of President Harry S. Truman, it underwent a complete renovation, at which time all of the interior rooms were completely dismantled and a new internal load-bearing steel frame was constructed inside the walls before the interior rooms were rebuilt.

Although the original White House was completed in 1800, it wasn’t until 1833 that President Andrew Jackson had indoor plumbing installed. And it took another 20 years, until 1853 during President Franklin Pierce’s administration, that all of its bathrooms had hot and cold water running to them. And the White House didn’t have electricity until 1891, nearly a century after it was first built.  Electric lighting was still a fairly new concept when President Benjamin Harrison had it installed.  And because he was worried he would be shocked if he touched a light switch, he never once personally turned a light on or off himself.  In fact, he and his family were so scared of touching the switches that they would leave the lights on all night.

Today the White House measures 168 feet long and 85 1/2 feet wide without porticoes, or 152 feet wide with porticoes.  The overall height of the White is 70 feet on the south and 60 feet 4 inches on the north.  The building totals 55,000 square feet of floor space on six levels, two basements, two public floors, and two floors for the First Family.  This makes President Donald Trump’s current primary residence more than five times the size of his 10,996 square-foot penthouse that occupies sections of floors 66 through 68 of the Trump Tower skyscraper on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, but smaller than his 62,500-square-foot mansion named Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. 

The White House is comprised of 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms, and contains 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, and three elevators.  It has two dining rooms, the larger of which can comfortably seat 140 people.  And its other amenities include a movie theater (officially called the White House Family Theater), a billiard room, a music room, a jogging track, a tennis court, and a putting green, as well as a bowling alley, a flower shop, a chocolate shop, a carpenter’s shop, and a dentist’s office in the basements.  It also has indoor and outdoor swimming pools.  But only the outdoor pool is currently in use.  The indoor pool, which opened in 1933 for use by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was filled in by President Richard Nixon and is underneath the floor of what is currently the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.

Other interesting facts about the White House:

  • The White House was accredited as a museum in 1988.
  • The grounds of the modern-day White House complex, which includes the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (which houses offices for the President’s staff and the Vice President), and Blair House, a guest house, and The President’s Park and The Ellipse, covers just over 18 acres.
  • The White House was the biggest house in the United States until the Civil War.  It is currently tied with two other homes for the 34th place. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, is now the largest house in the country.  And at 175,856 square feet, The Biltmore is well over three times the size of the White House.
  • The initial construction of the White House is reported to have cost of $232,371.83, which would be equal to $3,279,177 today.  A recent appraisal valued the White House building and its property at just under $400 million.
  • The White House is ranked second, coming in behind the Empire State Building, on the American Institute of Architects list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”
  • The White House requires 570 gallons of paint to cover its outside surface and keep it white.
  • Each week the White House receives up to 30,000 visitors and 65,000 letters, plus nearly 3,500 phone calls, 100,000 emails, and 1,000 faxes.  It receives up to 30,000 visitors each week.
  • The White House never advertises staff positions.  All employees of the White House are found via word-of-mouth or recommendations. As a result, many employees belong to families that have been working in the White House for generations.
  • In addition to numerous dogs and cats, the White House has been home to a number of unusual pets of presidents and their families. Some of the more unusual animals include: two opossums named Mr. Protection and Mr. Reciprocity, kept by President William Henry Harrison; a pair of tiger cubs that were gifted to President Martin Van Buren; President Zachary Taylor’s horse, named Old Whitey; a mockingbird named Dick, which President Thomas Jefferson’s allowed to fly freely around the house; a snake named Emily Spinach that belonged to President Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter; President John Quincy Adams’ alligator that lived in one of the bathrooms, and; two other alligators that belonged to President Herbert Hoover’s sons and sometimes roamed free within the residence.  In addition to the above, a raccoon was sent to President Calvin Coolidge to be eaten for Thanksgiving dinner, but he instead named it Rebecca and kept it as a pet.  The raccoon was in addition to President Coolidge’s other pets, that included a bear cub, two lion cubs, a bobcat, a wallaby, and a pygmy hippopotamus.
  • Because President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was paralyzed below the waist due to polio, he added elevators and ramps in 1933, making the White House one of the first wheelchair accessible government buildings in D.C., a full 57 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated it.
  • President Lyndon Johnson drove White House plumbing foreman Reds Arrington to the point of being hospitalized with a nervous breakdown over his constant demands for more water pressure in his unusual White House shower.  Mr. Arrington spent five years working on getting the White House shower up to the president’s standards, adding nozzles, upping water pressure and making the water piping hot.  The next president, Richard Nixon, took one look at the shower and said, “Get rid of this stuff.”
  • George Washington is the only president to never have lived in the White House, but his wife, Martha Washington, grew up and lived at an estate named White House Plantation.
  • Room is free for residents of the White House, but board is not.  At the end of each month, the president receives a bill for his and his family’s personal food and incidental expenses, such as dry cleaning, toothpaste, and toiletries, etc., which is then deducted from his $400,000 annual salary.
  • Eighteen couples have gotten married at the White House, the most recent of whom tied the knot in 2013, when White House photographer Pete Souza was married to Patti Lease in the Rose Garden.
  • To date, a total of 10 people have died within the White House walls.  Presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor both died in the White House. Three First Ladies, Letitia Tyler, Caroline Harrison, and Ellen Wilson, passed away there, too.  Willie Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln, Fredrick Dent, First Lady Julia Grant’s father, Elisha Hunt Allen, Minister of the Kingdom of Hawaii to the United States, and Margaret Wallace, First Lady Bess Truman’s mother all died there.  And one employee. Charles G. Ross, White House Press Secretary to President Truman, died there as well.
  • Like many other buildings and places in D.C., The White House is reported to be haunted.  Many stories persist.  But of all the haunted White House anecdotes out there, the one that really sticks involves Sir Winston Churchill.  He refused to ever again stay in the Lincoln Bedroom after President Lincoln’s ghost appeared to him beside the fireplace as he was emerging from a bath, fully nude.

This blog post contains just a small fraction of the vast amount of information and copious number of stories about the White House and its occupants.  Entire books, many of them, have been written about the famous and historic residence.  But I hope you found the information in this post interesting, and maybe learned some things you didn’t know before about the house located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The White House – North Portico

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Blair House

On this lunch time bike ride I stopped by a late-Federal style, buff-colored limestone townhouse known as “Blair House.” Located across from The White House at 1651–1653 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C., it is directly opposite the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and near the southwest corner of Lafayette Park.

The original townhouse at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue was built in 1824 as the private residence of Dr. Joseph Lovell, who was a member of the Continental Congress and the first Surgeon General of the United States.  After Dr. Lovell’s death in 1836, the house was sold for $6,500.  It was purchased by Francis Blair, who had previously moved to the nation’s capitol at the urging of President Andrew Jackson. It soon became known as Blair House, and has retained the moniker ever since.

Francis Preston Blair, Sr. was born in April of 1792 in Abingdon, Virginia. In 1811, after graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, he moved to nearby Frankfort, where he worked as a circuit court clerk and a journalist who frequently contributed articles and editorials to a local newspaper. Blair became an ardent follower of President Jackson, and his writings and editorials eventually garnered the attention of the President, who invited Blair to move to D.C. and take over a failing newspaper named The Globe. Blair turned the paper into a pro-administration publication, and became a successful newspaper publisher. He was also an influential advisor to President Jackson as a member of what became known as his “Kitchen Cabinet.”  Blair also continued to be an insider in the administrations of Presidents Martin van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.

Beginning in 1837, seven years after moving to D.C., Blair and his wife Eliza and their three children took up residence in the townhouse, which would remain in the family for over a century. In 1859, Blair built a red brick townhouse next door, to the left of to Blair House, at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, for his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and her husband, Samuel Phillips Lee, a third cousin of Robert E. Lee. In 1942, after being purchased by the U.S. government, the houses were combined, along with two other adjacent townhouses. The complex is sometimes referred to as the Blair-Lee House, though Blair House remains the official name.

Blair House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now managed by the U.S. State Department and serves as the President of the United State;s official guest house.  However, one President, Harry Truman, actually resided there during an extensive renovation of the White House.  As a side note, during President Truman’s time in residence at Blair House it was also the scene of an assassination attempt in which the first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty, and to date the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President, occurred.

Today Blair House is primarily used to house foreign heads of state and their delegations, and flies their countries’ flags when foreign leaders stay there. It is also occasionally used for domestic guests, which has included several presidents-elect and their families prior to their initial inauguration.

During the 1980s, Blair House underwent significant restorations, with a new wing added on the north. The combined square footage of the entire complex now exceeds 70,000 square feet, making it more massive than its famous neighbor, The White House, which is approximately 55,000 square feet. And what started as a simple private residence has now expanded to consist of 110 rooms, including several conference rooms and sitting rooms, 23 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, and 4 dining rooms, as well as several kitchens, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, and an exercise room. It even has a hair salon and a florist shop.

As I visited this house that has long been associated with important events in American history, and in recent times, world history, I couldn’t help but wonder what Francis Preston Blair, Sr. would think if he could see his former residence today.

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Leslie William “Les” Coffelt Memorial Ride

Leslie William “Les” Coffelt Memorial Ride

This past weekend marked the 64th anniversary of first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty.  On November 1, 1950, Leslie William “Les” Coffelt, was killed while protecting President Harry Truman from an assassination attempt.  So, on this bike ride I rode to two of the locations connected to Officer Coffelt. The first was The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, located at E and 5th Streets in northwest D.C. (MAP). I also rode by Blair House, which is the President’s guest house located near The White House at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), and where a commemorative plaque honors Coffelt’s sacrifice.

Back in the autumn of 1950, President Truman and his family were living in the nearby Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue while the White House was being renovated.  On the afternoon of November 1, Truman and his wife were upstairs when they heard a commotion and gunshots coming from the front steps of the house.  A pair of would-be assassins named Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, nationalists who supported independence for Puerto Rico from the United States, werer attacking officers at the Blair House in an attempt to assassinate President Truman. They never made it past the entry steps, however, due to the quick reaction of police officers and guards.

Torresola approached from the west side while Collazo engaged Secret Service Officers and White House policemen from the east. Torresola approached the guard booth at the west corner of the Blair House and fired at Coffelt from close range. His three shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, mortally wounding him. A fourth shot passed through the policeman’s tunic.

Torresola shot two other policemen before running out of ammunition, then moved to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. Coffelt went out of his booth and fired at Torresola from 31 feet away, hitting him behind the ear and killing him instantly. Coffelt limped back to the booth and blacked out. He died of his wounds four hours later in a hospital.

Collazo later revealed to police just how poorly planned the assassination attempt actually was. The assailants were unsure if Truman would even be in the house when they launched their attack at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Torresola and Collazo were political activists and members of the extremist Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a group fighting for full independence from the U.S. The “Independistas,” as they were commonly called, targeted President Truman despite his support of greater Puerto Rican autonomy.

President Truman escaped unscathed, and apparently unfazed by the attempt on his life, he kept his scheduled appointments for the remainder of the day. “A President has to expect these things,” he remarked dryly.

Officer Coffelt is still the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President. Collazo was sentenced to death, but in an act of forgiveness on July 24, 1952, Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Disgracefully, President Jimmy Carter later commuted Officer Cofflet’s killer’s sentence to time served, and granted the man release. Collazo returned to Puerto Rico, where he died 15 years later.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial honors the more than 19,000 U.S. law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty throughout this country’s history. The memorial features a reflecting pool which is surrounded by walkways on a 3-acre park. Along the walkways are walls that are inscribed with names of all U.S. law enforcement officers — federal, state, and local — who have died in the line of duty.  This includes Officer Coffelt.

Officer Coffelt’s name is inscribed on Panel 23-W of the Memorial. Ironically, the next two names engraved on the same panel immediately after Officer Coffelt’s are A.M. Blair (who was a detective with the Greenville, S.C., police department, killed in 1919 while raiding a dice game) and John House (a patrol officer in St. Joseph, Mo., who was accidentally shot by a fellow officer during a domestic disturbance call in 1922). So as it turned out, the two names following Officer Coffelt’s are Blair and House – Blair House – the location where Officer Cofflet was killed.

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