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.)
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.