A House Big and White, and About to Get New Occupants in January

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Barbara Klein. In the United States, the third Monday in February is a federal holiday. Federal law calls it Washington's Birthday, honoring the nation's first president. But Americans now commonly know it as Presidents Day. And for this Presidents Day, or Washington's Birthday, we tell you about the presidents' home, the White House.


George Washington supervised the building of the White House. Yet he and his wife, Martha, never had the chance to live there. It was completed after he left office in seventeen ninety-seven.

Since then, America has had forty-two other presidents. All of them have lived at sixteen hundred Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, in Washington, D.C. George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, have lived there since two thousand one.

This November, Americans will elect a new president. The new first family will meet with White House employees after the election to plan for the move. Then the family will move in on January twentieth, two thousand nine -- Inauguration Day.

The White House has an East Wing and a West Wing. The Oval Office, the large round room where the president works, is in the West Wing. The first family lives in the East Wing. The official home of the vice president is on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington.

The White House has more than one hundred thirty rooms. It also has collections of more than forty thousand objects. Presidential families often find things in storage that they like when they move in. For example, Jimmy Carter's children found a chair that Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, had bought.

First ladies have all added to the White House in some way. Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, created a colorful garden that is named in her honor.


George Washington entered office in seventeen eighty-nine. He had great hopes for the house he started. In seventeen ninety, he signed an act of Congress to create an area for the federal government in the District of Columbia, along the Potomac River. President Washington and the French city planner Pierre L'Enfant chose the land for the new presidential home.

A competition took place to find a designer. An architect named James Hoban entered a design similar to where the Irish Parliament meets, Leinster House in Dublin. Hoban was from Ireland. He won five hundred dollars and a piece of land for his winning design.

Grayish white sandstone was chosen for the walls. Work started in seventeen ninety-two, while George Washington lived in Philadelphia.

America's second president was John Adams. He and his wife, Abigail, were the first to live in the new home. They moved in on November first, eighteen hundred. The house was not yet finished.

John and Abigail Adams lived in six rooms and used others to entertain guests. But they lived there for only four months.

John Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson tried to finish work on the home. So did the next president, James Madison.

But in eighteen fourteen, British forces invaded Washington. They burned the White House. President Madison's wife, Dolly, tried to save valuable objects from the fire as she fled.

She rescued a painting of George Washington.  This famous portrait by Gilbert Stuart hangs in the White House to this day.

After the fire, James Hoban helped rebuild the house he had designed. During this time, it was painted white. Over the years, the White House has been enlarged and almost totally rebuilt.

One of the most recent projects was completed in July of two thousand seven. Workers made about eight million dollars in improvements to the press briefing room. The work included a better look for television, new electrical system, better air conditioning and more comfortable seats. Some of the old ones were broken.

News organizations paid for part of the cost of the work. Reporters moved to temporary offices across the street from the White House while the press room was closed for almost a year.

The room is named in honor of former White House press secretary James Brady. He and President Ronald Reagan were shot and wounded by a man with mental problems outside a Washington hotel in nineteen eighty-one.

The press briefing room is built over Franklin Roosevelt's old swimming pool. Polio disabled his legs, but President Roosevelt still swam. The pool was built in nineteen thirty-three.

Roosevelt was president from nineteen thirty-three to nineteen forty-five. The thirty-second president led the nation through the end of the great economic depression and most of World War Two.

He was elected four times, more than any other president. He died in office. Today, the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution limits a person to being elected president twice.


In nineteen sixty-one, Congress decided that furniture of historic and artistic value would always be White House property. In effect, Congress made the White House a museum.

As visitors enter the White House, they see pictures of past presidents on the walls.

In another hall on the same floor are paintings of first ladies. A room off this hallway contains a collection of fine dishes. Each presidency has added to this collection.

Wide marble steps lead to the next floor. It is called the State Floor. Presidents use rooms here for official duties and to entertain guests.

The largest room on the State Floor is the East Room. News conferences and music performances take place here. But this room has had other uses over the years.

Abigail Adams hung her family's clothes to dry from the wash. Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of the thirty-fifth president, John F. Kennedy, rode her tricycle in the East Room.

Other rooms on the State Floor are named for their colors: the Blue Room, the Green Room and the Red Room. The president meets with diplomats and other guests in these rooms. They are also used for special events.

The twenty-second president, Grover Cleveland, married Frances Folsom in the Blue Room in eighteen eighty-six. The Green Room held the body of President Abraham Lincoln's son Willie, who died in eighteen sixty-two.

And the nineteenth president, Rutherford Hayes, took his oath of office in the Red Room in eighteen seventy-seven following a disputed election.

Nearby is the State Dining Room, where big events take place, like official dinners for visiting leaders. The Treaty Room on the second floor is used for meetings. Important documents have been signed there. At different times, this was the cabinet room or the president's office.


The next floor of the White House contains bedrooms for guests. One of these is the Lincoln Bedroom, named for the sixteenth president. But Abraham Lincoln never slept there.

Lincoln used the room as an office while he led the country through the Civil War in the eighteen sixties. President Lincoln was murdered days after the war ended with the surrender of Robert E. Lee, the Southern general. John Wilkes Booth, a stage actor and supporter of the South, shot Lincoln at Ford's Theatre, not far from the White House.

Over the years, presidents and other people have reported seeing Lincoln's ghost or feeling his presence in the White House.

Long gone are the days when people could simply walk into the White House. In fact, the White House was closed to visitors temporarily after the terrorist attacks of September eleventh, two thousand-one.

Information about public tours can be found at whitehouse.gov. Tours are available for groups of ten or more people. Requests for these self-guided tours must be made through a member of Congress. A limited number of tours are available. People can also see inside the White House through virtual tours at whitehouse.gov.


Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and Nancy Steinbach and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Barbara Klein. Transcripts and MP3s of our programs are on the Web at voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.