Hidden White House exposed! (Will Congress obstruct?)

A new book recounts the unsung history of President Truman's White House, which was completely gutted and rebuilt -- rather than bulldozed, abandoned or relocated.
Written by C.C. Sullivan, Columnist (Architecture)

A plan for nationalized health insurance is on the table. The House objects, and spitefully refuses to fund a renovation of the White House. Collapse is imminent.

Sounds like just yesterday, right? But this scenario played out in 1948, according to a new book that debuts this week. That same year, President Harry Truman also accidentally discovered -- while taking a bath -- that the White House had serious structural problems and needed to be shored up or rebuilt.

Truman secretly convened a team of America's best architects. They determined the 1800 building was so poorly built that the first family immediately relocated to the president's guest digs, Blair House. Upon learning this, the antagonistic Congress debated whether to bulldoze the White House. In the end, the famous mansion was instead completely gutted, its original facades kept intact while a modern, concrete-and-steel frame was transplanted within.

But we came within inches of losing the White House.

Few will recall this amazing episode. It happened at the dawn of the Cold War, when most Americans were distracted by the Soviets and their first atomic bomb blast. Yet the author Robert Klara brings the architectural episode into vivid, colorful detail in a new book, The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence.

The president's Cold War bunker

Among the enjoyable book's most fascinating strands is Cold War legend: The White House reconstruction included adding a "complex labyrinth deep below ground that soon came to include a top-secret nuclear fallout shelter," Klara says.

While the drawings of the secure bunker are still classified, Klara assembles a detailed picture based on official accounts, diary entries, redacted meeting minutes and even the general contractor's files. "Indeed, I learned more about the shelter than I felt comfortable putting into the book, since I don't need the [National Security Agency] coming after me for being nothing more than a well-meaning history author," Klara jokes.

(Not to worry: a secretive $86 million subterranean project on the West Wing lawn finished last September may have changed a few things anyway.)

Speaking of clandestine agendas, The Hidden White House also paints a picture of a superstitious, devoted occultist -- who also happened to be the architect designing the revamped presidential home. White House architect Lorenzo Winslow had "quite the secret life" as a spiritualist and claimed to "routinely speak with the dead," Klara recounts. Winslow's diaries describe seances he attended, including one session where he heard from "the master" -- a man named William T. Stead, a famous occultist who went down on the Titanic.

Architecture and the supernatural

Not only was Winslow a talented architect, Klara says, he also claimed to draw inspiration from contact with the ghosts of several dead presidents. One apparition told Winslow that James Hoban -- the undisputed architect of the White House, chosen personally by George Washington -- did not in fact design the White House at all.

"What's incredible is that Winslow was an intimate of Truman's and enjoyed unfettered access to the Oval Office," Klara says. Given the hysteria of the times -- remember, McCarthy's Red-hunting was getting hot by 1949 -- the author concludes, "Winslow's belief that the dead were talking to him was one he held at considerable peril to his job."

History buffs and preservationists alike will delight in these and other enjoyable, vivid accounts in Klara's detailed storytelling. For architects with an interest in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW -- arguably the country's second most recognizable building and home to every president since John Adams -- it's the ultimate insider's guide. It's where Jackie Kennedy and Laura Bush famously redecorated, where Carter-era solar panels were deployed for Reagan-era operatives to ceremoniously decommission. It's where the Obama family's vegetable garden has gone untended during the recent government shutdown.

The power of rebuilding 

In architectural terms, Truman’s rebuilding of the White House tells a story of not just architecture, but also how our great monuments persevere and change with the times. Postwar America was a time of serious change, and with the special role taken on by Truman -- America's first Cold War leader -- the uncelebrated reconstruction becomes a powerful metaphor.

Consider this fact, Klara says: Though Congress was aware of the cracked and buckling walls, it refused to fund the renovations. The United States came perilously close to demolishing the White House and putting up a sleek, modern replacement. A plan was floated to move the White House to the Maryland suburbs. Seriously.

"All of it was about saving money," Klara says. "Saving a few dollars was more important than the country’s most important landmark, and we nearly lost it. It’s still scary, just thinking about it."

Was that why Klara chose to spend three years researching and writing The Hidden White House?

Not quite. It was one amazing image that Klara found while researching another book, FDR's Funeral Train. "In one of the countless files or books I found myself digging through, I uncovered a photograph of a shell of a huge house -- the interior was only steel bracing and a bulldozer driving around on the bare earth," he recalls, thinking then what a mess it was. "Then I read the caption: It was the White House. Summer 1950.

"And I thought: This is my next book."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards