Listen my children and you shall hear of Michelle Obama’s widening fear, that one day she will awake, and the world will have discovered her knowledge is all fake…. (With apologies to Mr. Longfellow)
Okay, America, it’s time for a history lesson. When the First “Lady,” Michelle Obama, claimed recently that the house she wakes up in every day was “built by slaves” the poor woman didn’t realize just how badly she stepped in the historical quicksand. See, those who are enthusiasts of White House lore (this writer is one such person) know a few things about the Executive Mansion. One of those little tidbits of trivia is that in 1948, after the leg of Margaret Truman’s piano went through the floor, an assessment of the house was made and long story short, the Truman family was more or less evicted to live in the White House Guest House – along with a whole lot of the furniture – the day after the 1948 election. (The West Wing, a Teddy Roosevelt addition, however, was still available for the President’s use.)
Call the Property Brothers
When the announcement was made to the public, it was to inform the people on the fruited plain that the interior, anyway, of the Executive Mansion was on the verge of collapse. 150 or so years of repair upon repair without thinking about what was already there, and taking into consideration that 14 inch beams might well be weight bearing in nature (some were whittled down to two inches after various renovations), along with a concrete and steel third floor added under Calvin Coolidge administration, and a whole host of other issues including modernizations that were too heavy for the structure, and reuse of timbers after the 1814 fire, crumbling bricks, etc., and Harry Truman had a legitimate fear of being in the presidential bathtub, wearing nothing but reading glasses, and landing directly on top of a Daughters of the Revolution Tea.
So, after a number of scenarios were considered – including tearing the whole place down and rebuilding it – it was decided to gut the house and rebuild the interior, resulting in the rubble seen here:
The White House, as we know the Executive Mansion today, was rebuilt between 1949 and the end of 1951 for a total cost of $5.4 million, over 80 years after slavery was abolished. The NEW superstructure of the house – the one that Michelle Obama wakes up in – includes:
- Two lower levels added (one is the bomb shelter)
- A steel superstructure strong enough to hold everything up
- Closets and bathrooms on the second floor not part of the original house
- The Grand Staircase was reconfigured so that the president could really make an entrance
- Air conditioning was added
Additions to the Ground Floor included additional service elevators to service the upper floors, a bowling alley, expanded kitchen, broadcast studio, barber shop, medical and dental clinics, carpentry and upholstery shops, and large service and equipment spaces.
The public rooms – largely still in the original configuration – were then designed in the Federal Style, with some features having been salvaged from the post-1814 construction and innovations including some panelling. However, at the time, the detail of this was not as involved as it would be today, so much of what is currently in the White House was copied. Some marble fireplaces went to landfills as well. Not all of the furniture had been preserved over the years. (Frankly, some of it was stolen in 1814.) Bess Truman was the force behind recollecting the pieces for the Lincoln Bedroom, and Jackie Kennedy was instrumental in tracking down a number of other pieces of furniture and art that had been sold off, stolen, or given away in her restoration a decade later. There were some things yet to be fixed, like drafty fireplaces, and too small sinks in the kitchen, but the effort of Harry and Bess Truman gave us the White House as we know it today.
So, in effect, the actual historical aspect of the White House is almost strictly its sandstone exterior walls – and even then, those were dismantled and rebuilt after the 1814 fire. They are now painted white, and may well have been cut by slaves, but certainly weren’t set by them. They were set by Scottish immigrants employed by the Irish architect, James Hoban. The original interior may have had some slave labor help for which they were actually paid, but for the most part was done by skilled craftsman, many of whom were Irish immigrants. As explained above, the vast majority of that is now gone.
This information is all readily available, and the photographic history of the Truman renovation project was taken by Virginia photographer Abbie Rowe. A good percentage of the collection is available online.
So, Michelle Obama, was the White House built by slaves? Parts of the original, yes, but you aren’t living in the original. And the sad thing is, millions of us who have never lived in that particular residence know it, and you don’t after almost eight years.