By Brian Resnick
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:
The inside of the White House, after being gutted in 1950.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
View from the Lincoln Room northeast into Rose Room.
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.
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.
Images and captions courtesy of National Archives
Thank you, President Truman.