The People's House

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, left, meets with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, center and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, right, in Mecca Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007. Rival Palestinian factions reached an agreement on how to divvy up Cabinet posts in a power-sharing government, crucial to averting a civil war. AP Photo/Suhaib Salem, Pool

It's every American's house but only one family's home, and Wednesday, it turned 200.

A structure that has weathered wars, a devastating fire and the big egos of those who have lived in it, CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg reports it's a home with features that would make a fetching real estate ad: 132 rooms and 31 bathrooms on 18 acres. Monument view. Pool, solarium, bowling alley. Transportation nearby.

But like any old place, it's got its problems, and its quirks — perhaps reflecting the idiosyncrasies of the people who lived there. Each president has made his mark.

The first First Lady to live there, Abigail Adams, found a dreary, unfinished East Room, good only for hanging laundry. When she and President John Adams arrived by carriage at the White House, only half of the walls had been plastered, one of three staircases had been built and scaffolds still lay against basement walls.

When electricity went in in 1891, people got shocks from the switches.

William Taft converted the stables into a garage for the first official automobiles. In World War I, Woodrow Wilson put sheep on the White House lawn to help with the home front effort and in World War II, it was suggested the trademark white walls should be painted in camouflage colors. John F. Kennedy redesigned the Rose Garden.

The indoor pool built as therapy for Franklin Roosevelt's polio was covered over in 1969 under Nixon to make more room for the White House press corps.

Any changes are carefully checked but it is the public's wrath that is most effective in encouraging presidents to retain the character of the building. "The president could paint all the rooms pink if he so desired but he would have to face public scrutiny," said Seale.

Harry Truman wanted a balcony to escape the heat. He submitted his plan to the board, but, explains John Whitcomb, author of Real Life at the White House, "They said, 'Oh, no, you can't do that,' and he said, 'To hell with them, I'm going to do it, anyway.'"

"The ironic thing is that when it was discovered that the White House was falling down and they had to go through that reconstruction period, they told Truman the only real safe place in the White House upstairs was his balcony," Whitcomb recalls.

After his 1950 restoration, Truman was so proud of what was basically a new building that he gave a TV tour. But almost no one remembers it, because Jacqueline Kennedy's later tour was such a smash.

Despite the changes and the turmoil they paralleled, White House historian William Seale said the building symbolizes a continuity of democracy not common to all nations.

"There have been times when it was attacked, but it always represented a peaceful transition of power," said Seale, who has written several books on the subject.

The house is run like a five-star hotel, with a staff of about 100, from cooks to plumbers. It's a community where its occupants are treated lke kings and queens and get all the trappings of royalty along with the power — and a bill.

Presidential families pay for groceries, dry cleaning, toothpaste and other toiletries. Guests are not charged to stay in the Lincoln Bedroom or any of the other guest rooms, but they are billed for such incidentals as sending out for a hamburger.

The stately mansion, at the heart of the nation's capital, is modeled on an Irish country house and is unusual in that it serves as both the president's home and office. It is also a museum that welcomes about 6,000 visitors a day.

George Washington commissioned the house but never lived in it. It has had two major structural renovations in two centuries, first after British forces burned it during the War of 1812 and its blackened walls were painted white.

Historians say the White House is important not only because of its architecture but because of the events recorded there, from the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed there in 1987 between Russia and the United States to the first national radio broadcast by Calvin Coolidge in 1925.

But it can be a strange place to live. Some presidents, like Truman, felt claustrophobic in the White House, seeing it as a prison.

"There is very little privacy at all. The president can never really be alone. When you have lived a modern life and been free it can be hard to be locked up in that way," said Seale.


©2000 CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Reuters contributed to this report
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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