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15 Fascinating Facts About The White House

We were so surprised by number 4!

The White House is nearly 230 years old, so it’s not hard to imagine that some pretty interesting stuff has gone down there. From fires to alligators in the bathroom, and even ghosts, here are 15 things you may not know about the most famous house in America.

1. George Washington Never Lived In The White House

While America’s first president, George Washington, selected the site for the White House, it was actually President John Adams and his wife Abigail who moved in first. Washington chose the site of the building in 1791 and the cornerstone was laid in 1792, but the house was not finished during Washington’s time as president. Adams, America’s second president, took up residence there in 1800, although it was still unfinished. Today, it has 132 rooms on six floors, totaling approximately 55,000 square feet.

It cost $232,372 to build the White House. Adjusting for inflation, that would be about $4 million today. If you were somehow able to purchase it today, it would cost about $397.9 million.

2. It Wasn’t Always Called The White House

Calling a large white building where someone lives the “White House” may seem like common sense, but it actually had a few different names. It was originally known as the “President’s Palace.” It was then changed to the “Executive Mansion” in 1810, although some people referred to it simply as the “President’s House,” while others called it the “White House.” It wasn’t until 1901, however, that Theodore Roosevelt officially adopted the name the “White House.”

Speaking of the name, ever wonder why the White House is in fact white? It was first made white with lime-based whitewash to protect the porous stone from freezing. It was never allowed to weather and was refreshed periodically until it was finally painted white in 1818.

Theodore Roosevelt photo

3. The West Wing Was Meant To Be Temporary

The West Wing was built by Roosevelt to keep the residential and official business areas separate. It wasn’t attached to the main house until 1909, when William Taft had it expanded and remodeled.

4. The First Family Doesn’t Get Free Food Or Toiletries

First families don’t have to pay rent to live in the White House, but they are responsible for personal costs. That includes the family’s personal food, dry cleaning and even wages for waiters and clean-up crews at private events. The costs are then deducted from their annual salary of $400,000.

president eating photo

5. The Indoor Swimming Pool Was Built To Help President Roosevelt

There have been two pools in the White House since the 1930s. The indoor pool opened in 1933 for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from polio. He used the pool for therapy. The ramps and elevators in the White House were also built to accommodate him. Interesting to note, the pool was built only after a campaign by the New York Daily News to raise money for the White House addition.

The pool is no longer there, having been disused in 1969 by President Nixon to make room for the press briefing room.

white house press photo

6. Dogs And Cats Haven’t Been The Only Pets In The White House

The last pets to live in the White House were Bo and Sunny, dogs belonging to President Obama and his family. The first pets were President Taylor’s horse and a former circus pony. In between those were everything from President Jefferson’s bird that flew freely throughout the house and President Adams’ alligator that lived in the bathroom to President Coolidge’s group of animals that included a bear cub, two lion cubs, a bobcat, a wallaby and a pygmy hippo.

white house pets photo

7. Some Say The White House Is Haunted

There is quite the collection of ghost stories surrounding the White House. From President Lincoln in the Lincoln Bedroom and Yellow Oval Room to an unnamed British solider from the War of 1812, multiple people are said to have seen ghosts. First Lady Grace Coolidge, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands all say they have seen Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln photo

8. It Wasn’t Always Hard To Get Into The White House

It’s pretty tough to just walk into the White House today, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1829, President Andrew Jackson’s inauguration got so out of hand at the president’s home that only the promise of free liquor led the crowd out of the mansion, which some say was nearly destroyed by the mob.

In those days, Inauguration Day was an “open house” for the White House. Anyone who wanted to could show up, shake the president’s hand and maybe even have some punch and dessert.

9. The White House Was In Fact Built By Slaves

Initial plans for building the White House included importing workers from Europe to meet the labor needs, but response to recruitment was dim. Soon, they turned to African Americans—both enslaved and free—to provide the bulk of the labor for not only the White House, but also the United States Capitol and other early government buildings.

10.  President Harrison’s Family Was Scared Of The Light Switches

Electricity was installed in the White House in 1891, but most people at the time didn’t have much faith in electric lighting, so gas lighting was still used as well. The president at the time, Benjamin Harrison, and his wife Caroline, were afraid of getting shocked, so they refused to turn the lights on and off.

light switch photo

11. The Basement Of The White House Is A Mini Mall

The basement contains, among other things, a carpenter’s shop, an engineer’s shop, a flower shop, a chocolate shop and even President Nixon’s bowling alley. It is also where the housekeeping office is, as well as the laundry.

12. The First Movie Screened At The White House Was “The Birth Of A Nation”

On March 21, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson attended a screening of “The Birth of a Nation.” It was the first film shown at the White House and presented a distorted portrait of the South after the Civil War. After the film, Wilson reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”

13. Tom Hanks Keeps Buying New Coffee Machines For The White House

Tom Hanks recently gifted the White House press corps a new espresso maker, replacing a coffee maker he sent in 2010. He previously bought one for the press in 2004, when he toured the break room and saw there was no coffee maker.

The most recent gift came with a note, reading, “Keep up the good fight for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Especially for the Truth part.”

14. Very Little Of The Original White House Remains

The British and Americans didn’t always get along so well. In fact, during the War of 1812, British troops entered Washington, D.C. and actually set the White House on fire as retaliation for an attack in Ontario, Canada. It’s been reported that soldiers ate a meal of leftover food from the White House, using White House dishes and silver, then ransacked the building before setting it on fire.

There was also a second fire at the White House, this time in 1929. It was started by a blocked fireplace flue on Christmas Eve. President Hoover reportedly left a Christmas party to personally direct firefighting efforts. The fire caused damage to parts of the West Wing and the Oval Office.

15. The White House Is The Only Private Residence Of A Head Of State That Is Free To Visit

It’s true—there are no other residences belonging to a head of state that are open free of charge to the public. You do have to request and book tours in advance though, so don’t plan on just walking up and knocking on the White House door.

tourist white house photo

Just in case you’re looking for more history, we’ll leave you with a few other tidbits we found interesting:

  • President James Polk was the first president to have his photograph taken.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt was not only the first president to ride in an automobile, but also the first president to travel outside the country.
  • President Franklin Roosevelt was the first president to ride in an airplane.
  • Also, check out this video of a White House tour!

[h/t: Travel and Leisure]