The White House, home to the First Family, is a often viewed as the bastion of American democracy; but the People’s House is full of interesting secrets. From bowling alleys to brothels and everything in between, the White House is as much a witness to history as it is a part of American history. While closely tied to the president, the White House is treated as a separate entity, from the staff who manage its upkeep to the accounts that financially support it.
Why Is The White House White?
When Irish architect James Hoban began building the White House in 1792, porous sandstone was chosen from Aquia Creek Quarry, in Stafford County, Virginia. George Washington chose it because it was easy to carve, and easy to ship to D.C.. To prevent water and cracks from ruining the facade, the stone was covered in a lime and water wash to coat and seal the stone. This was done continuously to ensure that the stone stayed waterproof. When the house was rebuilt after the War of 1812, the White House was covered in white lead-based paint. Even after the permanent paint job, the Executive Mansion would not be known as the White House until Teddy Roosevelt coined the phrase in 1901.
The People’s Brothel?
Thousands of men were needed when building commenced on the White House in 1792, and a more enterprising mason and his wife decided to bring the party to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The mason/pimp provided the clients, and an enterprising woman named Betsy Donahue provided the ladies. While the White House brothel closed doors once the building was complete, for the greater part of the 1800s, Hooker’s Division, a major red light district operated within sight of the White House. The best part? No one batted an eyelash at people having sex on White House grounds… OH THE IRONY.
Of presidents I dislike, Warren G. tops the list. Not only was he just a bad president, he was a serial cheater. One of his favorite places to get it on? A large cupboard located near his office in the White House. While president, many of his closest friends and advisors (known as the “Ohio gang”) were charged with defrauding the government and accepting bribes. Harding was also a crappy card player—gambling away the White House china which dated back to 1889 when Benjamin Harrison was president—in just one hand. President Harding was also a fan of love letters, and you can read them here or listen to John Oliver read them to you.
Skinny-dipping At The White House
Lyndon B. Johnson, who incidentally, makes my list of presidents I love to hate, was known for his large, overbearing personality. He amplified this by often towering over people, forcing them to lean backwards in what became known as the “Johnson Treatment.” President Johnson was also known for inviting friends and diplomats to swim in the White House pool with him. A fan of skinny-dipping in public, visitors to the White House got to enjoy the view of Johnson’s johnson up close and personal.
The Original White House
Most of the White House is not original. From the 1817 rebuild to the Truman renovation, the White House has seen substantial changes. After Margaret Truman’s piano leg fell through the ceiling, architects were called in to investigate. President Truman’s renovation was the most extensive, after architects found major structural flaws in the building. But this was not the first improvement to the White House. Over the years presidents have used their discretionary decorating fund ($100,000 every four years) to build add-ons like the basketball court, swimming pool, and bowling alley.
The White House Gift Unit
You can send gifts to the White House and THEY HAVE TO KEEP THEM. The President receives so many gifts every year, that the White House has a dedicated team to deal with accepting, storing, and reporting every single thing sent to the White House. From letters and drawings to expensive gifts from diplomats, it all has to documented. Most of the gifts are donated to presidential libraries, and anything edible or combustible is destroyed by the Secret Service. The President and First Lady are allowed to keep any gifts they want, but must pay fair market value for them if they are valued at over $180, and must report the gift to the Office of Government Ethics.
Want to send President Obama or the First Lady a hand knitted scarf? There is even a website which details how to do so!
Who Foots The Bill For The First Family?
For the most part, the First Family. That’s right, President Obama pays for his groceries, toothpaste, and incidentals. The White House bills the First Family every month. Because the White House belongs to the American public, we get to foot the bill for its electricity, maintenance, and any public dinners or events held by the president on our behalf. In fact, Johnson used to walk through the house at night turning off lights to lower the cost for American taxpayers.
Want to learn even more about the White House? Check out the History Channel’s 10 Things You Didn’t Know series!