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History Of The White House: Facts And Trivia You Didn't Know About The Building

historical landmarks | November 4, 2020

A view of the south facade of the White House in Washington. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Was The White House Built?

George Washington recognized the need for a presidential home and even selected the site for the White House in 1791, but he never lived in it. Construction of the building began in 1792 with the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone, but eight years later, when President John Adams was elected, the house was still unfinished. Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved in anyway, becoming the first residents in White House history, and the work continued around them until construction on the White House was finished later in 1800. It's a truly impressive building: With six floors spanning a total of 55,000 square feet, it houses 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases, three elevators, and 412 doors. No wonder it took so long to build.

Grace Coolidge with Rebecca the Raccoon. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Lives In The White House?

In addition to the president and their family, an assortment of animals—some of them rather exotic—have called the White House home over the years. Early on, farm animals were kept on the White House property, as they were on many homesteads in the 19th century. President Woodrow Wilson famously owned a herd of sheep that kept the grass neatly trimmed. On the less practical side, John Quincy Adams had a pet alligator, Calvin Coolidge had a pet raccoon, and Martin Van Buren owned two tiger cubs, a gift from the Sultan of Oman.

Perhaps one of the strangest things to occupy space in the White House was a two-ton block of cheese. A gift from Andrew Jackson's admirers in the dairy industry of rural New York, the enormous block of cheese went on a short East Coast tour before arriving at the White House. Jackson kept the huge block of cheese on display in the White House for a year before flinging open the doors and inviting the whole city over for a cheese party. Guests ate their fill and even cut out small blocks of cheese to take home with them, and by the end of the evening, only a small slice of cheese remained.

Jimmy Carter with Willie Nelson and his guests. (National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons)

The Weirdest Things That Happened In The White House

President Teddy Roosevelt was known for his manly pursuits, and among his favorite pastimes was boxing, so he built a boxing ring right in the White House. He regularly sparred with several young military men, and once in 1908, the 50-year-old president took a blow to his left eye so hard that his retina detached. He was literally struck blind. He kept the incident under wraps for years and never named his sparring partner to save the young man from the scorn he may have received for injuring the popular president.

When country music legend Willie Nelson visited the White House in 1977, President Jimmy Carter's son, James Earl "Chip" Carter III, was over the Moon. He was in his mid-twenties and a typical '70s youth, so he seized the opportunity to hang out with one of his favorite entertainers. One thing led to another, and pretty soon, the pair found themselves sharing a joint on the White House roof. Nelson has always been coy about the story, but in 2015, the younger Carter confirmed it, explaining that Nelson "told [him] not to ever tell anybody" for his own good.

One of the weirder White House facts is that until the 1973, women weren't allowed to wear pants inside the building. By that modern, liberated decade, women had begun pushing back against the antiquated rule, but it took the energy crisis of the early '70s to change it. White House staff lowered the thermostat a few degrees in response to the oil shortage, and everyone working in the building felt the chill, so women were finally allowed to wear pants, lest they freeze their oppressed butts off.

Bronze bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Charles Alston in the Oval Office on January 20, 2017, below Norman Rockwell's painting Working on the Statue of Liberty. (Sean Spicer/Wikimedia Commons)

Living In A Museum

Here's a fun bit of White House trivia for you: The occupants of the White House quite literally live in a museum. The White House art collection, which contains more than 65,000 individual pieces, was established by an act of Congress in 1961. Incoming presidents and first ladies can add to the collection and rearrange the paintings as they wish to reflect their own interests, like when Ronald Reagan placed a portrait of Calvin Coolidge on the wall of the Cabinet Room to remind those inside it of his fiscal conservatism and Michelle Obama added an abstract painting by Alma Thomas to the White House collection, the first piece by an African-American woman.

William Lincoln c. 1855. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Did White House Water Kill Lincoln's Son?

On February 20, 1862, William Wallace Lincoln, the 11-year-old son of President Abraham Lincoln, died in his bedroom in the White House after a courageous bout with typhoid fever, but there may be more to the story than the history books tell us. The canal that provided water to the White House was dug close to a nightly soil depository, a spot where residents emptied their chamber pots, and it's likely that Willie Lincoln's infection originated from this almost certainly contaminated water source. He may not have been the only victim of contaminated White House water: Historians have suggested that Presidents William Henry Harrison and James K. Polk, who died about eight years apart in the 1840s, may have both succumbed to the tainted water supply. It's presumably been corrected, but just to be safe, if you ever find yourself invited to the White House, maybe bring an Evian.

Tags: American presidents | famous landmarks | the white house

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.