A few steamy acres upwind of the malarial Potomac, a great House grows. Foundations are dug, plumb lines strung, stones set, windows framed, rafters raised, walls plastered. Not a single inch of it is incidental. Well, it’s easy to govern a house. Houses are a lot of lines ruled by strict geometry.
Domestic architecture follows its own laws of pressure and resistance. Laws of gravity. And houses obey the laws of time. (Paint flakes. Plaster develops stress fractures. Wood warps.)
The White House is as correct as any other big house of its period. It conforms to expectation with a persnickety crispness of angles. The front door is impeccably central. To the eighth-inch, pilasters are the same width. At regulated intervals, tall windows blink through its facades, and though the pediment styles vary shallow curved eyebrows, shallow triangles the arrangement of them, from each of the building’s corners, is symmetrical.
However, as for the trees, gardens, the world around the house just think of the tendency of vines to trail, of hedges to poke and seethe in new growth. Of lawns to go to seed, given half a chance. The world outside the windows of any house has a habit of breaking free. One might as well try to govern the shape and spacing of the clouds in the sky.
Let’s look in, for a century or two, at the White House. (Come on, we have the right. It’s our house too.) Those who live in the house, for a few years or for many, see home improvements, redecorations from salon to parlor, renovations and restorations from basement to rooftop.
And let’s look out, too. Out of the windows, into the world. Residents and visitors alike see another set of rules at work: Not of geometry, but of history. Herewith, a history as it involves human progress and potential, human despair and human hope.
There are as many ways to tell a story as there are voices to try. There are as many views, looking in and out of the White House windows, as there are eyes to look.
1796. George Washington strides the acreage of the plot and decides where the house will sit, and in which direction its windows will face. Though he is the first president, he can’t determine what the windows will witness. He hopes they will last long enough to look out at decades, maybe even centuries.
1800. John Adams chooses wallpaper. No one has moved in yet, and Adams requests the installation of a bell system for summoning servants. This will keep the number of the house staff down and save cash, always a good idea when you’re setting up a new house or a new country.
1800. John Adams takes up residence, the first president to do so, but he loses the next election, so he has to move. The bell-system he’s requested isn’t even installed yet. It’s so hard to get good workers to show up in a timely fashion.
1801-1809. Thomas Jefferson supervises the installation of water closets, making those undignified trips to the outhouse unnecessary. Flush with pride at internal improvements, he decides to upgrade the country, too, and arranges, in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase. Roughly, this doubles the territory governed by the United States. Remodeling! Expansion! A huge headache, but worth the effort.
1808. The US prohibits importation of slaves from Africa, a practice that has been in place for nearly 200 years ever since 1619, when English settlers first imported African slaves into Virginia. Before slavery is abolished entirely, nine Presidents from the south will have brought slaves into the White House, starting with George Washington.
1812. The War of 1812 begins, and in 1814 British troops enter Washington and burn the White House. Brave Dolly Madison flees, having snipped the portrait of George Washington out of its frame first. The house is a broken shell. It is rebuilt, and reopened on January 1, 1818.
1831. Across several seas, Charles Darwin sails on the HMS Beagle. He begins the observations that will lead to his book, The Origin of Species. This is a book that will change ideas about how our own species developed, and will influence, subtly but thoroughly, the notion of universal human rights.
1833. President Andrew Jackson oversees the installation of a hydrant on each floor. It’s good to have running water in the house!
1825-ish. James Monroe installs a candle-burning chandelier said to have belonged to Napoleon. Perhaps the light it sheds helps Monroe to see the dangers of foreign expansion and colonization in the Western Hemisphere, for his Monroe Doctrine protests against any new Napoleons and their designs on North or South America.
1834. An English mathematician, Charles Baggage, invents the principle of “analytical engine” something that will evolve into our modern computer. (It won’t be until 1980 that, under President Jimmy Carter, a computer makes it into the White House.)
1837-1841. While Martin Van Buren is in office, the drafty fireplaces and pot-bellied stoves give way, little by little, to a refined and comfortable system of central heating. The windows steam up with condensation on clammy December days! Rub a little window in the fog and what can you see? In 1837, Samuel Morse is exhibiting the telegraph. A few years later, in 1842, Boston and Albany are connected by railroad. Big time, the United States has entered into the Industrial Revolution.
1845-1849. Under President James Polk, the burning of oils and candles for light is replaced by gas chandeliers. The Mexican-American war, begun in 1846, is won by the United States in 1848. California, Texas, New Mexico, and other territories are annexed by the winner. This enriches the United States with the vibrancy of Hispanic cultures, another kind of luminescence by which to see.
The same year, the first U.S. women’s rights convention is held at Seneca Falls, New York. What does Mrs. Polk, who likes the softer lines of French furniture, and decorates the White House in rich reds, think of this?
1857. James Buchanan has a greenhouse erected on the roof of the west terrace. The aroma of camellias and orange blossoms can’t distract from the tensions spiking along the horizon. Look there, can you see? the United States Civil War
1861 is about to break out. General McDowell’s regiment marches in front of the house, and a viewing stand is erected on the lawn so President Lincoln can stand at attention. And what attention he gives.
1863. The Emancipation Proclamation is published; slaves are freed.
1865. President Lincoln is assassinated; the Civil War ends. Through a terrible cost in human life, the Union is preserved.
1865-1869. President Andrew Johnson allows a telegraph into the White House. Who does he telegraph to boast about the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867?
1877-1881. Rutherford B. Hayes enjoys the magic of a telephone! A typewriter! Does he write to his friends about the Brooklyn Bridge that is being erected, and will open two years after he leaves office? About the new electric lights Edison develops in 1880?
1886. The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in honor of the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Out there in New York Harbor, she’s so tall she can peer across the curve of the Eastern Seaboard into the windows of the White House. She doesn’t always like what she sees; there’s still work to be done.
She pays attention to the people arriving at her feet, from all over the world, especially Eastern Europe and Ireland, Italy and Germany.
The population swells. And the first English edition of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital is published.
1889-1893. During the tenure of Benjamin Harrison, electricity is run into the building. Imagine how ready the building will be for a private motion picture theater installed during World War II when, in 1894, Louis Lumière gets around to inventing the cinematograph, and the following year, 1895, the same Louis and his brother Auguste come up with a motion-picture camera.
But that’s in the future. Perhaps in 1895 Grover Cleveland peers at newspapers in the flickering electric light and takes note of Freud’s “Studien über Hysterie.” It’s likely he doesn’t; he has other things on his mind.
1898. The Spanish-American war begins and ends, and from the highest point of the White House roof you can just make out the new U.S. possessions on the horizon: Over in this direction, Cuba and Puerto Rico. Out that way, Guam and the Philippines.
The first magnetic recordings of sound are made this year.
1902. Under the supervision of Teddy Roosevelt, renovations and expansions to the White House include the West Wing, for the workings of government, as well as a new east pavilion for the reception of visitors. Up to three carriages can park in the porte-cochere. Roosevelt is pleased with the results and throws a polar bear pelt down on the floor of the Green Room to give the dignified old place a lived-in look.
1908. The first Model “T” Ford rolls off assembly lines, and the century of speed is under way. The White House will take years to get used to the arrival of automobiles instead of carriages, and on certain foggy mornings, just before dawn, the gravel still crunches as if a carriage is drawing up. By 1909 the White House stable has been transformed into a garage.
Then it is the century of speed time begins to swing along at a clip. Change comes faster, things rush together. Wars and motion, motion and wars, and the wallpaper gets changed. In a gulp:
1912. The Titanic sinks, and the first transcontinental phone call is made.
1914. World War I begins, and ends in 1918. With the eventual U.S. participation, the war is won for the Allies, signaling the arrival on the world stage of the United States as a major military power. Woodrow Wilson endorses the notion of a League of Nations that can act as an advisory congress for the growing number of independent countries.
1927. Charles A. Lindbergh flies solo from New York to Paris, and the Age of Aviation begins in earnest. The roof of the White House is removed for the addition of a new third story. Mrs. Calvin Coolidge imports antiques into the house to give it a new air of dignity and respectability.
1929. A fire on Christmas Eve! President Herbert Hoover oversees the removal of important papers from the Oval Office.
1939-45. Franklin Roosevelt quietly has a colonnade modified to include a ramp for wheelchair access. He is rarely photographed in a wheelchair, for in his handling of the U.S. efforts during World War II, he prefers to project an air of unhampered courage and determination.
During that time of menace and bravery, Fermi splits the atom in 1942, and in 1945 the United States drops two atom bombs on Japan. With this extreme gesture, the war in the Pacific arena is won.
1947. President Truman allows a television set into the White House, and every night since, somewhere on the premises a TV set has been tuned in to some news show. The Korean War of the 1950’s gets some coverage, but not until the Vietnam War in the 1960’s and early 1970’s is the true power of television journalism understood.
1952. Harry Truman moves back into the White House after more than two years of structural renovations.
1960. In the election, President Kennedy squeaks a victory over Richard Nixon, and some people credit the win, in part, to Kennedy’s effectiveness in the first nationally televised debates. Mrs. Kennedy invites TV cameras to tour the White House with her, and most of the American public sees the House for the first time
The TV news still runs in black-and-white, which seems suitable for the sobriety of the events of President Kennedy’s assassination and funeral in 1963.
1963. Reverend Martin Luther King Junior’s speech on the Mall, “I have a dream,” echoes up Pennsylvania Avenue and reverberates still.
1964 and 1965. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, respectively, are signed into law by Lyndon Johnson. They begin to correct some of the most egregious effects of American racism inherited from the history of slavery in the American colonies and the United States. How long will it be before a black American a man or a woman is elected President of the United States?
1972. Across town at the Watergate complex, there’s a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The subsequent cover-up by the staff of President Nixon, and eventually by the President himself, results in a constitutional crisis that rattles the windows. President Nixon resigns in 1974, the first President of the United States to do so. He leaves by helicopter.
1977. Gerald Ford installs a pool on the White House grounds, and, in 1993, Bill Clinton installs a running track.
1979. Jimmy Carter initiates a PBS television series called “In Performance at the White House,” and the media finds something new to air.
But meanwhile, American hostages are taken in Iran, which heightens attention on the growing anger that Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East feel toward American culture and, in some instances, American ideals.
1980-88. While Ronald Reagan is in office, the Cold War between the two great superpowers, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., is headed for either a confrontation or a breakthrough. Fears of nuclear attack are accompanied by a growing insistence of freedom behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in Poland.
The Reagan’s dinner service is much remarked upon. It features a wide red band overlaid with a lattice of gold. A return to opulence after the casual style of the Carter residency.
1989. George H. W. Bush and his wife invite the nation to view the second and third floors of the White House via television, opening yet new vistas to the American people.
The war known popularly as Desert Storm or the first Gulf War, since the second occurs during the presidency of George W. Bush in 2003 pushes invading Iraq back out of Kuwait. Debated at home, the war is well-supported by governments internationally, and a period of worldwide peace presaged by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the U.S.S.R. seems upon us.
1993. Bill Clinton has a walnut conference table placed on the South Lawn for the signing of a treaty between the Israelis and the PLO. The same table was used for the signing of treaties between Israel and Egypt (on the North Lawn, under Jimmy Carter’s direction), and in 1898, to formalize the conclusion of the Spanish-American war. It’s good to have furniture that you can shift around as you need it.
Clinton presides over a period of unprecedented economic growth and stability, but his successes are overshadowed by mistakes of personal behavior compounded by dishonesty on the public record.
2001. The significance of the events of September 11 terrorist attacks on American soil by Muslim fundamentalists will take years to sink in. Islamic and Arabic Americans, who mourn the hijacking of their dignified faith in the name of such heinous behavior, join other Americans in mourning the loss of thousands of civilian lives.
George W. Bush leaves the White House and flies to New York to speak to workers who dig for survivors in the rubble of the fallen World Trade Center towers. The comfort he gives is palpable, and the grief with which he returns to the White House is ours.
2008. The presidential campaign grips the nation yet again. Is it a presidential race, or a popularity contest, or a concerted effort to change the old rules and to bring types of faces into the White House on the executive level that have never been welcomed there before?
Perhaps an election is all of these things, and more. Perhaps, at its best, a presidential election is a chance for us citizens to review on a regular basis just what sort of direction we believe the country needs next.
And if an election doesn’t go our way, there’s always another one coming in four more years. . . .
The great house endures. It is a symbol and it is a home, too. It can’t do without constant renovation, for as new technologies change the way Americans think and live, new concepts of liberty, responsibility, and justice require upgrading of systems. Liberty and justice for all isn’t a matter of fashion. It’s a matter of honor.
Hey, that’s what it is when you own a house or, as a citizen, have interest in the welfare of a country. Endless inspection, endless remodeling to bring things up to code. Making them work. Making a place to live and work and rest. A place you can know, reliably, is home.
©2008 Gregory Maguire; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance