The White House is an architectural masterpiece that has been the home of every president – except for the one who constructed it!
On October 13, 1792, George Washington laid the White House cornerstone. However, oddly enough, Washington died before the building was completed, and president John Adams and his wife were the first to reside in the iconic white mansion.
Let's go back in time and learn more about when the White House cornerstone was laid and all that this building has been through over the last 200+ years – from being set on fire, reconstruction, and expansions.
Why Was the White House Built?
Not long after America's first president, George Washington, was inaugurated, the people began to question where he should live. Some believed he should live in the North; others said the South. Some said he should live in a grand castle like a king; others said a simple house just like everyone else.
After much debate, George Washington as president decided to find land to build a new house and a district. He decided on land near the Potomac River, which bordered both the North and South. He named the land the District of Columbia after Christopher Columbus.
According to the U.S. Senate, the planning of the city took place before it was even built. With no roads, villages, or docks for boats, it would take years before it would be completed. The president decided that the capitol building should be placed on top of a hill at one end of the city, and the president's house on top of a hill at the other end of the city.
What Year Was the Cornerstone to the White House Laid?
It was Thomas Jefferson who suggested the idea of a contest where the public would send in their designs for the president's new house (one of whom was Thomas Jefferson!). After being advertised in newspapers all across the country, the committee decided on a design sent in from an Irish-American architect named James Hoban.
The White House's first stone was placed on October 13, 1792. It's said that Washington put an "inscribed silver plate under the cornerstone of the southeast corner of the building."
To this day, no one knows whether or not that meant the southeast corner located in the Senate wing, or the southeast corner of the entire building, which would be located on the House side. Architects continue to search the White House layout for a silver stone. They’ve even used a metal detector but haven't had any luck finding it.
Eight years after the stone was placed, the building was in livable condition, but still not completed. At this time, Washington was no longer alive, and John Adams was president. Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the house in November of 1800.
Regarding their new home, Abigail Adams wrote, "I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise men ever rule under this roof!"
By 1801, Thomas Jefferson was president, and the White House was nearly finished. Jefferson decorated the house with elegant furniture and wallpaper from France. Ever since, each and every president has added his own personal touch.
When Was the White House Set on Fire?
During James Madison's presidency, the United States went to war with England in 1812.
The British troops were nearing Washington, D.C., ready to burn down the president's house and the Capitol Building. Just as Madison's wife, Dolley, was prepared to be taken away by carriage, she ordered two men to take down George Washington's portrait.
Today, this is the only piece of original White House furnishings that survived the fire. After the war was over, the house was rebuilt and repainted from its original lime-based whitewash to pure white to hide the smokey ashes.
Ever since then, people began calling it the White House as opposed to the President's Palace or the President's House.
The White House Post-Construction and Beyond
By 1820 the White House was completely restored and remodeled with additional wings. Thomas Jefferson was the first president to open the doors to the public for tours on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July.
Over the centuries, the building has been improved with electricity, water, gardens, a swimming pool, gym, cinema, and more. Today, the White House has over 130 rooms – with the president living in the main building and his office in the West Wing.
Many people visit Washington, D.C., to learn more about the history of the White House. The building is open for public tours with around 6,000 visits per day.
Learn More About the History of the White House
The White House is full of rich history that serves as an icon here in America!
If you’re looking for a fun, hands-on project that gives kids an up-close and personal look at the White House, check out our 19th Century Time Traveler. While you’re at it, don’t forget to check out our American Revolution Time Traveler, where kids can learn about George Washington’s presidency and America’s roots.
Time Travelers are perfect for parents who want to incorporate action-oriented history projects. If you’d like to learn more about our exciting and effective Time Traveler’s, feel free to check out our blog posts, What is a Time Traveler? and How to Use a Time Traveler.