What the White House Looks Like Completely Gutted

In the late ‘40s, the executive mansion was in a condemnable state. To save it, everything had to go.

: National Archives and Records Administration. Office of Presidential Libraries. Harry S. Truman Library.
Add to Briefcase
Brian Resnick
Feb. 26, 2013, 1:02 p.m.

Harry S Tru­man in­her­ited a White House that was in hor­rendous shape. After the Brit­ish nearly burnt it to the ground in 1814, the con­struc­tion of 20th-cen­tury in­nov­a­tions—in­door plumb­ing, elec­tri­city, and heat­ing ducts—had also taken its toll on the struc­ture. The build­ing was nearly 150 years old, and it showed its age. In Novem­ber 1948, the build­ing was in a near-con­dem­nable state, as The New York Times re­por­ted:

The ceil­ing of the East Room, elab­or­ately done in the fres­coes of fruits and re­clin­ing wo­men and weigh­ing sev­enty pounds to the square foot, was found to be sag­ging six inches on Oct. 26, and now is be­ing held in place by scaf­fold­ing and sup­ports…. But it took the $50,000 sur­vey au­thor­ized by Con­gress to dis­close the fact that the marble grand stair­case is in im­min­ent danger. Sup­port­ing bricks, bought second hand in 1880, are dis­in­teg­rat­ing.

The so­cial events of the 1948 hol­i­day sea­son had to be can­celed. And with good reas­on: Ex­perts called the third floor of the White House “an out­stand­ing ex­ample of a fire­trap.” The res­ult of a fed­er­ally com­mis­sioned re­port found the man­sion’s plumb­ing “make­shift and un­san­it­ary,” while “the struc­tur­al de­teri­or­a­tion [was] in ‘ap­palling de­gree,’ and threat­en­ing com­plete col­lapse.” The con­gres­sion­al com­mis­sion on the mat­ter was con­sid­er­ing the op­tion of abandon­ing the struc­ture al­to­geth­er in fa­vor of a built-from-scratch man­sion, but Pres­id­ent Tru­man lob­bied for the res­tor­a­tion.

“It per­haps would be more eco­nom­ic­al from a purely fin­an­cial stand­point to raze the build­ing and to re­build com­pletely,” he test­i­fied to Con­gress in Feb­ru­ary 1949. “In do­ing so, however, there would be des­troyed a build­ing of tre­mend­ous his­tor­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance in the growth of the na­tion.” 

So it had to be gut­ted. Com­pletely. Every piece of the in­teri­or, in­clud­ing the walls, had to be re­moved and put in stor­age. The out­side of the struc­ture—re­in­forced by new con­crete columns—was all that re­mained. See im­ages of the re­con­struc­tion be­low. (Pho­tos and cap­tions are from the Na­tion­al Archives via the Tru­man Lib­rary.)

The inside of the White House, after being gutted in 1950. : National Archives and Records Administration. Office of Presidential Libraries. Harry S. Truman Library.
Window openings provide bursts of light into the cavernous interior of the White House, supported only by a web of temporary steel supports. The exterior walls rest on new concrete underpinnings, which allow earth-moving equipment to dig a new basement.  National Archives / Truman Library
This photograph was taken from the east entrance of the lower corridor of the White House, looking west with the East Room above. The workmen are demolishing the walls of the lower corridor.  National Archives / Truman Library
A view from the Servant's Dining Room to the bottom of an underpinning pit approximately 30 feet below. The concrete underpinning here will support a steel girder reaching to the roof of the White House.  National Archives / Truman Library
A bulldozer removing debris from the inside of the White House, during the renovation of the building. The bulldozer had to be taken apart and moved into the White House in pieces, as President Truman would not allow a hole large enough to fit the bulldozer to be cut into the walls of the White House.  National Archives / Truman Library
View of the north wall of the second-floor corridor of the White House during the renovation. The truss work in the walls of the North Hall have been removed.  National Archives / Truman Library
View from the first floor landing to the basement during the removal of the Joliet stone steps from the main stairway of the White House. National Archives / Truman Library
Two unidentified men stand in what remains of the second-floor Oval Study above the Blue Room. The north wall and part of the floor have been removed for the installation of steel shoring columns. National Archives / Truman Library
Detail of the north wall of the Blue Room after the removal of the plaster from the walls. The jambs of the doorways to the Red Room (left) and Green Room (right) have also been removed.  National Archives / Truman Library
View from the Lincoln Room northeast into Rose Room. National Archives / Truman Library
View of the northeast corner of the White House during renovation. Workmen are installing reinforced steel for laying of the concrete roofs of the Fan Room and other rooms in this area.  National Archives / Truman Library
To underscore the size of the massive new ventilation system being installed above the tunnel in the new White House basement, the photographer placed workmen inside the illuminated ductwork. National Archives / Truman Library

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.