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White House missing its insides and the historical process

Okay. I’ll be honest. Since I first started this particular post, it’s been re-written multiple times. It started out as a short, fun little piece on an interesting period of American history that I wasn’t familiar with. It morphed into a commentary on how to teach historical thinking. It took a short detour into how kids analyze primary source documents. And now . . . I’m not really sure.

(Part of the problem was the fact that I was without my laptop for a week, going commando with only an iPad. And in case you’re wondering – iPads and WordPress don’t play nice. I may have used some grownup words in front of small children at one point.)


I would love for you to hang around for the entire thing but I’ll understand that at this point you might just want to go back to watching basketball.

Still here? Great. First, a little context.

When Harry Truman moved into the White House after being elected in 1948, it was into a building ready to collapse.

In the 130 odd years following its renovation after the damage caused by the British in 1814, the White House did see some upgrades (indoor plumbing, electricity, etc) but very little actual upkeep. By January 1949, the building was in terrible shape.

The New York Times reported:

The ceiling of the East Room, elaborately done in the frescoes of fruits and reclining women and weighing seventy pounds to the square foot, was found to be sagging six inches on Oct. 26, and now is being held in place by scaffolding and supports . . . But it took the $50,000 survey authorized by Congress to disclose the fact that the marble grand staircase is in imminent danger. Supporting bricks, bought second hand in 1880, are disintegrating.

Experts called the third floor of the White House “an outstanding example of a firetrap.” The result of a federal report found the mansion’s plumbing “makeshift and unsanitary,” while “the structural deterioration was in ‘appalling degree,’ and threatening complete collapse.” During a informal recital in what is now the private dining room, the weight of the piano resulted in one of its legs actually breaking through the floor.

The building was in such bad shape that some were arguing for it to be torn down and replaced with a new presidential mansion.

But Truman wasn’t having any of it. He addressed Congress in February 1949:

It perhaps would be more economical from a purely financial standpoint to raze the building and to rebuild completely. In doing so, however, there would be destroyed a building of tremendous historical significance in the growth of the nation.

So . . . the building had to be gutted. Top to bottom. Anything of historical value, including walls, was put in storage. All that remained were the outside walls.

It’s the pictures of the process that I’m finding very to cool to look at.

white house gutted

The National Archives Flickr account has more amazing images of the reconstruction. I had never heard about this. I’m right in the middle of my third time through the TV series West Wing on Netflix and this particular photo just grabbed my attention.

And I’m loving the idea that the White House would offer chunks of the debris for sale:

White House debris

But my lack of knowledge of this event forced me back into research mode a bit. Where did the Trumans live during this period? Was West Wing business affected?  Where were state dinners held? How long did the process take? Did the workers find any old cool stuff during the renovation? How much did it cost? Who paid for it?

And while I’m intrigued by the photos and the context, it’s the historical thinking process that’s the real story. This is a perfect example of how we should be doing history. We use content to help kids understand the process of doing history.

Collect. Collaborate. Create. Communicate.

I find something I’m interested in. I gather data. I analyze photographs. I dig up and review primary source documents. In a small group, I develop a series of questions. And then using all that I’ve uncovered, I come up with what I think are the answers and share those answers with others.

Collect. Collaborate. Create. Communicate.

And while the 1951 White House reconstruction may not be the specific content I would use with students – it does, in my case, provide a useful reminder of how we can construct high quality lesson designs.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love the descriptions on application. “Enough old pine to make a gavel.” Fabulous.

    March 23, 2013
    • glennw #

      Exactly! And how many bricks is “enough to make a fireplace?” How do they ship those bricks? Just more questions!

      Thanks for the comment!


      March 23, 2013
  2. As you are wondering what this post is…

    It’s a great example about how a nonfiction writer can take a HUGE topic, and focus writing on an aspect very few have thought about. Most elementary students would say, “I’m going to do a report on the White House.” The amount of information would be overwhelming. The end result (for those that persevere) would be a few sentences about each room.

    Your post, in contrast, does what most new biographical picture books do: Find an interesting seed in an otherwise “watermelon” topic.

    I’ll use this as an example :). Thanks!

    March 23, 2013
    • glennw #


      I glad you could make something out of it! The story and pics of the reconstruction caught my eye and I wanted to share. Like your “watermelon” analogy – thanks for sharing it.


      March 24, 2013

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