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The renovation process that saved the White House from collapse

By: AAMIR On: 5:58 am
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  • Built in 1800, the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., has been the temporary residence of every U.S president since John Adams. In 1814 (during the war of 1812) the White House was set ablaze by the British army, destroying the interior and charring much of the exterior. Since then the building has undergone countless changes, putting undue stress on the centuries-old building (a brick and sandstone structure built around a timber frame).
    20th-century innovations like indoor plumbing, electricity and heating ducts all took its toll. In 1948 a Congress-authorized survey was undertaken revealing just how dire the situation had become:

    - The house was declared to be in imminent danger of collapse
    - The ceiling of the East Room, weighing seventy pounds to the square foot, was found to be sagging as much as 18 inches
    - The marble grand staircase was in imminent danger of collapse
    - Supporting bricks, bought second-hand in 1880, were disintegrating
    - The mansion’s plumbing was deemed “makeshift and unsanitary”
    - The president’s bathtub was sinking into the floor
    - Wooden beams had been weakened by cutting and drilling for plumbing and wiring over 150 years
    - The addition of the steel roof and full third floor in 1927 added weight the building could no longer handle

    Interestingly enough, completely tearing down and rebuilding the White House from scratch was found to be cheaper than a full interior restoration/renovation, however Truman deemed the ‘cultural’ value of keeping the original structure intact greater than any economic cost savings a total tear-down would provide.
    So in December of 1948, President Truman moved to the Blair House across the street and so began a multi-year renovation that would cost $5.7 million USD. The entire process was faithfully documented by Abbie Rowe, a photographer for the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. High-resolution photos (seen below) of the renovation were uploaded yesterday to the Flickr Commons account of The U.S. National Archives.