Monday, May 5, 2014

"The Hidden White House" by Robert Klara (2013)

Harry Truman didn’t really believe in ghosts. But he needed some way to express his notice of; and concern for; the condition of the White House he had inherited upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt. It’s no secret that President Roosevelt; faced with 2 very critical events in his time in office; had chosen to neglect the residence during the Great Depression and the years of the Second World War. This was on top of the damage caused by an electrical fire in 1925 while Coolidge was President.

During Truman’s hectic first term in office, which he began upon President Roosevelt’s death in 1945, he first noticed what he termed “ghosts” when writing to his wife in Independence, Missouri where she spent most summers. The floors creaked, the walls seemed to moan; and most disturbingly, the floors seemed to sway beneath your feet.

When the President’s daughter Margaret almost fell through the floor; while practicing piano; it became apparent that some of the original beams were cracking under the weight of a White House which had been altered many times over the years to accommodate modern conveniences, with no regard for the structural integrity required to hold the place up.

The site chosen for the construction of the White House was selected at a time when the science of soil bearings was in its infancy. And the modern conveniences of running water and electric lights were only daydreams. By the time that Truman moved in the house was a literal fire trap.

During the campaign for election in his own right in 1948, the condition of the White House was a closely guarded secret. It was feared that the public would somehow blame it on 16 years of Democratic rule and cost Truman the election.

Mr. Klara documents the major changes in the White House, all of which contributed unintentionally to it’s falling apart by the time that Truman arrived. In 1833 Andrew Jackson added running water; in 1848 President Polk added gaslight; in 1850 President Fillmore added a heavy iron bathtub; in 1853 Franklin Pierce added a furnace for hot water; in 1866 a telegraph was added; in 1879 a telephone system; and in 1891 electric lights joined the parade.

While all of these changes seem minor, they were all done with no regard for the structural integrity of the house. Doors were cut beneath lintels supporting load bearing walls, and beams were hacked and shortened where convenient. During the 1902 reconstruction of the house, and during the addition of the West Wing, shortcuts were taken which left rotted wood in place. This was on top of the fact that some of the original beams, which were burnt when the British set fire to the White House in 1814, had never been replaced, just re-used. In short; the White House needed fixing.

Truman was unable to get anyone to take him seriously at first. The Congress authorized a small amount of money to investigate the stability of the house, but seemed unwilling to commit the resources to save it. At first there were even calls to raze the mansion and build something newer and more efficient in its place. This is where Harry Truman drew the line.

Not only would the White House be rebuilt, but it would be done in such a way that it would never need extensive repairs like these again. After much wrangling it was decided that the only way in which to accomplish this was to gut the entire structure, and then brace it from the inside with a skeleton of steel beams.

Through funding problems and delays, Mr. Klara takes the reader on a tour de force of one of the most fantastic building projects ever undertaken. When the election of 1948 is done, and Truman wins a term in his own right, he comes back to the White House in triumph, only to have to move out within a few days. He would spend most of his next term living at Blair House, where he was almost assassinated by Puerto Rican nationalists.

The book is filled with the stories of the contractors who rebuilt the White House. These men; some big businessmen, some small; all did their best to bring structural integrity to the old house which had served as home to all of our Presidents since John Adams. But for the stubbornness of Harry S. Truman; who stood up to the 80th Congress; we might not have it today.

Mr. Klara has done a wonderful job in telling the story of how the White House was preserved. Along the way he introduces the reader to many colorful characters and some long forgotten history. Incidentally, the souvenir kits which were offered for sale to the public at the time; for as little as 25 cents for an acrylic paperweight containing a nail and some plaster from the old White House; seem to be all gone. I went looking on e-bay for a photograph to post and found none at all. There were only 5,000 or so made and imagine most have been long forgotten, or thrown away.

Some of the old White House mantels are still in use today and the author has done a superb job of chronicling the fate of all 24 mantels which came from the house. Of those 24, only 6 went back in.
This book is a natural follow up to author Robert Klara’s “FDR Funeral Train” which I reviewed here in April of 2010. That review can be viewed here;

And here is the best monument to Harry Truman; the White House as viewed from inside the fence in the 1990's.  Ask me how I took that picture sometime; I might tell you.

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