April Ryan of American Urban Radio Networks luxuriated in her new padded blue seat in the renovated White House briefing room, which will open Wednesday morning. "Now all I need is some heat in it, or for it to vibrate," she joked.
The improved workspace -- to be unveiled with a ribbon cutting by President Bush and his wife Laura -- features 570 miles of fiber-optic cable and two 45-inch LCD screens to accommodate a press secretary's charts and graphs.
On the rare occasions when the president makes an announcement or holds a news conference there, the backdrop will change to a more formal look. A pair of white columns brings a hint of Williamsburg to the new set.
The makeover was needed to replace 30-year-old air conditioners and outmoded wiring, and will result in a more modern set for White House officials. It also gives reporters one more seat, and more comfortable ones -- taller and an inch wider than before.
The vast renovation "wasn't a luxury," says Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph W. Hagin II, who shepherded it through. "It was driven by necessity. This place was underpowered and inadequate."
Hagin has overseen one of the biggest Bush administration legacy projects: a modernization of White House infrastructure. In addition to the press room, the upgrading has included a souped-up Situation Room and a makeover of the Eisenhower Executive Office building that finally banished the iconic window air-conditioning units.
The White House and White House Correspondents' Association will try to keep the press room more decorous with new attire guidelines and firm suggestions about eating or drinking there.
Ryan and other White House reporters recently got a sneak peek at the $8 million, 11-month makeover, which exiled journalists and part of the White House Press Office staff from the West Wing to a White House conference center just off Lafayette Park last August.
News organizations paid about $2 million of the $8 million renovation cost. The total, including some money spent on the temporary quarters, went slightly over budget because of unexpected asbestos issues.
"The big change here really is not the cosmetic change," said Hagin, who led the tours. "The big change is the infrastructure."
Workers upgraded wiring, more than doubled the capacity of air conditioners and installed new LED lights which generate less heat and, as Hagin put it, "should make it much more pleasant during the long, hot briefings."
The podium, which was once separated from the old White House swimming pool only by a wooden platform, now rests on a steel superstructure over poured concrete and metal.
The ballistic glass at the front of the room -- long a regular stop on White House tours -- remains, as does a hatch that allows visitors to peek into the old swimming pool. President Richard Nixon, of all people, considered the pool underutilized and had it converted into the press briefing room in 1970.
Appropriately enough, the Tony Snows of the last several administrations have stood atop what used to be the pool's deep end. You can still walk up to the shallow end but have to duck to keep from hitting your head.
"The pool was left largely intact for historic preservation reasons," Hagin said. Its green tiles are still visible, and many reporters and aides have signed them over the years.
Wires were once strewn on the floor that is now jammed with equipment racks and air conditioners. Recently, a dozen technicians were working on the wiring that will allow the television networks to broadcast live from the room at any hour. The wiring also provides telephone lines, microphone jacks, power lines and high-speed Internet access to each reporter's chair.
The West Wing Terrace area, where the press has resided for 37 years, was part of the original construction of the West Wing by President Theodore RooseveltIt initially was a laundry area, icehouse, servants' quarters and area for groundskeepers.
In 1933, an indoor swimming pool -- 50 by 15 feet, and eight feet deep -- was built in one section for President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The other section housed a florist shop, changing rooms and massage rooms, with another part reserved for presidential dogs. A year later, a West Wing renovation created a press lobby in the northwest corner of the building, just off the visitors' entrance lobby.
In 1970, President Nixon's staff proposed moving the press corps from its lobby headquarters to the ground floor of the nearby Old Executive Office Building. But reporters liked being adjacent to the visitors' lobby for a simple reason, according to Hagin: "Whenever visitors would come in, (reporters would) interview visitors whether they wanted to be interviewed or not."
Merriman Smith -- the legendary United Press International correspondent who, from a car in the Dallas motorcade, flashed news of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy -- objected strenuously to Nixon's proposal, Hagin said. "President Nixon was not a big swimmer, thought the pool was underutilized and agreed to put the facility here," Hagin said.
The White House Web site has a historical photo essay on the room, including a photo of Nixon talking with reporters in the new press room on April 17, 1970.
The next major renovation came in 1981, when President Ronald Reagan's staff installed theater-style seats and a low stage. Previously it had been more of a press lounge, with couches, armchairs and a smoking room.
It was redecorated under President Bill Clinton, who in February 2000 christened it the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. That title, which remains today, honors the press secretary who was shot and badly wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
This latest renovation used 28 cubic yards (three trucks) of concrete for the pool slab and camera risers, plus 300 square yards of rubber-backed carpet tiles. The theater's 49 press seats are arranged seven to a row instead of the previous six, and White House staffers have five seats.
Hagin said the President and First Lady were involved in and supported the construction, despite its disruptions. The infrastructure overhaul began after Sept. 11, 2001, when Hagin said he and other White House officials recognized the building's limitations.
"My job has been to modernize the institution and to provide this president and future presidents with a modern infrastructure that will allow them to execute the duties of the office more efficiently, and to have redundancy in a time of crisis," Hagin said. "Day to day, we can all muddle through. But what we learned on September 11th was: We have to have the state of the art."