Part showplace, part workplace, probably one of the world’s most-recognized buildings, it’s hard to imagine now that until the 20th century the public could walk in freely, and the grounds remained open until World War II. Today, visitors simply get to peek at a scant eight rooms out of the house’s 132, and with little time to linger (the tour can take as little as 20 minutes). The public tour is self-guided (though highly regimented) and there’s not much in the way of interpretation, but the nation proudly clings to keeping its leader’s residence open to the public.
First occupied in 1800, and damaged by fire when the city was torched by the British in 1814, the White House has been home to every US president except George Washington, who chose the site in 1791. In 1902, Teddy Roosevelt added the East Gallery and the West Wing, which later grew to include today’s renowned Oval Office.
Each new First Lady can furnish the White House as she pleases: Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, replaced the B Altman department store furniture and frilly florals of her predecessors, the Trumans and Eisenhowers, with understated blues and whites. Her overall refurbishment of the White House restored many historic furnishings and artworks to the rooms. Her tour on national television was a triumph. Each president, meanwhile, imposes his character on the Oval Office, bringing in favorite furniture and personal selections from the White House art collection.
There are also offices for around 200 executive branch staffers, and recreational facilities, including a cinema, tennis courts, putting green, bowling alley and, courtesy of the elder George Bush, a horseshoe pitch. All told, there are 32 bathrooms, 413 doors, three elevators, seven staircases and a staff of more than 100, including florists, carpenters and cooks.
On the tour, you may get a look in the China Room, the pantry for presidential crockery. Don’t miss Nancy Reagan’s $952-per-setting red-rimmed china, which sparked a controversy about conspicuous consumption—as had Mrs Lincoln’s previously.
Up the marble stairs, visitors enter the cavernous East Room, which holds the sole item from the original White House: the 1797 portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison rescued just before the British burned the place down on 24 August 1814. The East Room is the ceremonial room where seven presidents have lain in state—and where Abigail Adams, wife of the second president, John, hung her laundry. At 3,200sq ft, the space could hold the average American home. Next is the Green Room, once Jefferson’s dining room, and where James Madison did his politicking after Dolley had liquored up important guests in the Red Room, the tour’s next stop, decorated as an American Empire parlor of 1810-30. It was here that Mary Todd Lincoln held a seance to contact her dead sons and where President Grant and his former generals refought the Civil War on the carpet using salt shakers and nut dishes as troops.
The color naming scheme continues in the Blue Room—although it actually has yellow walls. The furnishings here, the traditional home of the White House Christmas tree, were ordered in 1817 by President Monroe. Last stop: the cream and gold State Dining Rooms, which can seat up to 140. Then you’re out the door.
The White House Visitor Center, two blocks away at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, has exhibits related to the White House. It closed for renovations in July 2012, and was still closed as of April 2014. A temporary visitor center, with gift shop, is open at the Ellipse Visitor Pavilion near the corner of 15th and E streets NW, just south-east of the White House.
The White House Historical Association gift shop at Decatur House stocks books and White House-themed gifts and artifacts of all kinds.
To arrange a tour, US citizens should contact their member of Congress to arrange one. Tours may be scheduled up to six months in advance and must be scheduled no fewer than 21 days in advance. Citizens of other countries should check with their embassies on the status of tours for citizens of foreign countries.