The White House is 200 years old and renewing itself every hour, a great work still in progress. On a typical morning it is a village of 6,000 busy souls: the President, butlers, gardeners, journalists, clerks, economists, cooks, cops, one dog, one cat, and guests and tourists in some kind of harmony on 18 acres.
Workers are washing the outside walls now, while painters stand by to brush on a fresh coat of white paint for a fresh President and his family, come Jan. 20, 2001. On that afternoon, as the Inauguration parade winds down Pennsylvania Avenue, 120 men and women will move the Clintons out and the new First Family in, lock stock and canary if there is one. And the old mansion will be aglow in the winter light and ready to write a new chapter, with its 132 rooms cleaned and polished, its tennis court, jogging track, putting green, basketball hoop, swimming pool, theater, bowling alley and weight room fit for exercise. And in its offices, the fate of the world will continue to be deliberated, amid 500 priceless paintings and sculptures that tell the story of the great American adventure and the men and women who made it happen.
The idea of a "President's palace" quite naturally captured the expansive mind of transplanted Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant, who had grown to manhood at Versailles, the most magnificent monument to power and wealth--and self-indulgence--in Europe. In the fall of 1791, the new Federal City designed with his regal touch would be named Washington.
The human Washington, President George, had a better grasp of the nature of his countrymen and chopped the house plans to one-fifth the original size. And the name was downgraded from "President's palace" to "the President's House." A few years after its completion, the no-nonsense Americans were calling it as they saw it--the White House. Still, George Washington, with a lingering bit of the kingly itch, made sure the house would be grand enough for the Chief Executive of the new Republic. Even the ascetic New Englander John Adams, the new nation's second President and the first in residence at the White House, wanted a touch of majesty. "Neither dignity, nor authority," he wrote, "can be supported in human minds...without a splendor and majesty, in some degree proportioned to them." Big country, big dreams.
The White House had been a struggle to raise. Funds ran out, materials and workmen ran thin. Scottish stone carvers had to be enticed to America. A whorehouse sprang up among the construction shacks, and federal commissioners wanted it torn down, only to drop the complaint when carpenters protested. President Washington made sure the White House was built, bolstering his determination with inspections of the site.
Though the final building designed by James Hoban had dramatically shrunk from L'Enfant's original dream house, it was still the biggest in America when Adams moved in on Nov. 1, 1800. His arrival at about noon from Philadelphia caused little stir when he came down Pennsylvania Avenue in a nondescript carriage, one manservant on horseback behind him. Adams did some routine work in a makeshift office on the first floor of the still unfinished structure, ate supper, then took a candle to make his way up a servants' winding staircase to his bedroom. The main staircase was not finished.