The Executive Mansion is 217 years old and has been rebuilt and remodeled several times. The world’s most important office address was never intended to be an office building.
Behind the iconic facade and aside from the imposing Oval Office, the West Wing is mainly a rabbit warren of cramped offices that seem inadequate for the powerful people who occupy them.
It’s not unheard-of for journalists to encounter mice or moldy carpets in the White House press room, which was a swimming pool until President Nixon converted it into a bowling alley.
Mr. Trump’s supposed estimation of his new digs emerged deep in a Sports Illustrated story about his love affair with golf. The president reportedly told a group of golfing companions, “That White House is a real dump.”
“I love the White House, one of the most beautiful buildings (homes) I have ever seen. But Fake News said I called it a dump — TOTALLY UNTRUE,” he wrote.
Regardless, many people who have worked there say it’s a dump — a historical gem and an inspiration, but still a dump.
“I don’t know if he said it, but I agree that it is [a dump],” said Doug Wead, an author and historian who worked in the White House under President George H.W. Bush. “It’s so small, it’s so confined, it’s so limited, it’s ridiculous. It needs to be totally overhauled.”
The characterization may sound sacrilegious to many Americans, who see the White House as the historic, gleaming symbol of American power and prestige. And in real estate terms, you can’t beat the location if you want to live in downtown Washington.
But presidents and their families have to live there. While it’s a life of honor and privilege and even pampering, it’s still temporary housing.
Former first lady Michelle Obama once referred to the White House as “a really nice prison,” perhaps as much a commentary on the job of first lady and the ever-present security as it was on the confining dimensions of the building.
In response to Mr. Trump’s reported criticism of the White House, former first daughter Chelsea Clinton took to Twitter on Wednesday in defense of the White House personnel who cook, clean, garden and perform many other duties to make first families comfortable in the residence.
“Thank you to all the White House ushers, butlers, maids, chefs, florists, gardeners, plumbers, engineers & curators for all you do every day,” Ms. Clinton wrote.
There is also Mr. Trump’s previous address to consider.
Until Jan. 20, Mr. Trump and his family lived in a 30,000-square-foot penthouse in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a residence that was featured in House Beautiful magazine last year. The article described the decor as “rococo, the 18th century French style that preferred ornate details, curving furniture, and an abundance of gold.”
Showing its age
However uncomfortable it is to hear the White House described as an undesirable home, it has shown its age over the decades.
” ‘Dump’ is a pretty strong word, but as any old building, it does keep falling down and keeps getting repaired,” said Brookings Institution analyst Stephen Hess, who worked for several administrations beginning with President Eisenhower. He said later administrations were continually renovating the West Wing, and first ladies often undertook significant remodeling of the residence.
“I remember in the Nixon presidency, I had a very large office in the basement of the West Wing,” Mr. Hess said. “The minute they got rid of me, they cut it up and turned it into three offices. That was sort of typical of the way administrations keep changing it.”
Construction of the White House began in 1792 under George Washington, but President John Adams was the first to occupy it, in 1800. Adams had to live in a tavern in Washington temporarily until the construction was completed. First lady Abigail Adams complained to a friend that she had to hang laundry to dry in what became the East Room.
In August 1814, the British burned the White House. The torched building was such a dump that it was three more years before another president, James Monroe, moved in.
When Abraham Lincoln moved into the White House in 1861, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was horrified at its dilapidated state. Chunks of carpet had been cut out by souvenir hunters, curtains were torn, fewer than a dozen place settings were available for dinner parties, and there wasn’t even a key for the front door.
Lincoln got Congress to appropriate $25,000, and Mrs. Lincoln went on a shopping spree in New York for china and other items for entertaining guests. She eventually created a scandal with her indebtedness to creditors as the federal government struggled to pay for wartime necessities.
In the late 1940s, President Truman was dismayed by the draftiness and floors that bounced visibly with each step. With the White House in danger of collapse, the Trumans moved across the street to Blair House for about two years while construction crews gutted and rebuilt the interior of the mansion. There are photos of dump trucks and bulldozers moving debris inside the four walls.
Said Mr. Hess, “Some presidents seem more concerned with the decor than others. I got there with Eisenhower, and I don’t remember that he was much interested. I don’t think he even did much in changing the office that he inherited from Truman, who was not exactly a friend.”
He also believes he was one of the last White House staffers to swim in the pool, early in the Nixon administration.
“I wasn’t much of a swimmer,” he said. “I really only did it once to make sure I could say that I had done it.”
“The Trumps are the people to do it because they need an outside pair of eyes, and they don’t come from inside the political system,” Mr. Wead said. “They’ve been all over the world. They know functionality. To go back in again and see these tiny little offices of huge important people, operating in such confined quarters, it’s kind of stunning. They need room.”
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.