How Presidents Changed the Look of the White House

Oval Office 1993

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Oval Office 1993
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Home Improvements

Every family changes the way a home looks after they move in, and presidents are no different. While some first families have been content to rearrange the White House furniture and change the drapes (so to speak), other presidents have overseen major renovations and additions to the executive mansion. These presidents and first ladies have made some of the most significant or noteworthy changes to the White House over the decades.

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John Adams
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John Adams (1798-1801)

The cornerstone for the White House was laid in 1792, but construction took eight years, so for much of his time in office President John Adams lived and worked — along with the rest of the federal government — in temporary quarters in Philadelphia. John and Abigail Adams moved into a handful of rooms in the still-unfinished executive mansion on Nov. 1, 1800, just a few months before he left office. The First Lady complained that not only was the White House largely unfurnished, she was forced to improvise housekeeping duties and would hang laundry to dry in the East Room. Adams' most lasting contribution to the White House, however, is a quote from a letter he wrote shortly after taking up residence that President Franklin Roosevelt had carved into the mantel in the State Dining Room: "I pray Heaven to bestow the best of Blessings on this House and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise Men ever rule under this roof."

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James Madison

James Madison (1809-1817)

During the War of 1812, President James Madison and the government fled Washington, D.C., ahead of invading British troops, who set fire to the White House during their sacking of the capital on Aug. 24, 1814. Rebuilding took three years, during which time architect James Hoban added terraces to the east and west sides of the building. Although the Madisons returned in 1817, restoration and redecorating would not be complete until the addition of the North Portico in 1824 and the South Portico in 1829.

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Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson (1829-1837)

On Inauguration Day, the newly sworn-in president opened the White House to the public, and an estimated 20,000 persons flooded the building. China and glasses were shattered, upholstered furniture torn and damaged, and food and drink spilled and ground into carpeting. The bill to repair all this damage: about $14,000, or nearly $320,000 in today's dollars. Jackson spent an additional $50,000 during his tenure furnishing the executive mansion, including about $10,000 alone on furnishing the East Room. 

James Polk

James Polk (1845-1849)

Until the Polk administration, occupants of the White House relied on oil lamps and candles for illumination. In 1848, gas lines were installed on the first floor of the executive mansion for lighting, but First Lady Sarah Polk insisted the candle-lit Blue Room chandeliers remain. Good thing she did, though; on the night the new lighting was to be unveiled, a gas outage left the White House dark.

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Abraham Lincoln
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Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865)

The White House furnishings were in sorry shape by the time the Lincolns moved in, something First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln was determined to rectify. She spent the $20,000 that Congress had allotted for redecorating — and then spent nearly $7,000 more — on all manner of finery, including a 190-piece set of china, crystal drinkware, draperies, wallpaper, and furniture. The Lincolns were ridiculed for what was seen as extravagance during the Civil War.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)

During his first term as president, renovations to the White House were fairly modest in scope: improvements to private living quarters and offices on the second floor. But during Grant's second term, the East Room was transformed into a spectacle of Gilded Age decor — including gas-burning chandeliers dripping with crystals and glass globes — that cost an estimated $100,000.

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Chester Alan Arthur

Chester Arthur (1881-1885)

A man of exacting taste, President Chester Arthur refused to inhabit the White House until it had been renovated to his specifications. He ordered old belongings sold off — some two dozen wagons full of furnishings went to auction — and commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to create a stained-glass screen that spanned the length of the Entry Hall.

Benjamin Harrison

Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)

The White House was wired for electricity in September 1891, but like a lot of people, Benjamin and Caroline Harrison weren't convinced that the electric lights were safe and refused to operate them themselves. The art-loving first lady is credited with preserving old White House china services and laying the foundation for today's presidential china collection, which is displayed in the executive mansion's China Room.

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Theodore Roosevelt

Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909)

By the turn of the 20th century, it was painfully clear that the presidency had outgrown the White House. Under the direction of prominent architects McKim, Mead & White, the executive offices were moved in 1902 from the second floor to the newly built West Wing (which, at the time, was intended to be temporary). Victorian details such as the chandeliers in the East Room were replaced and Colonial Revival furniture designed by the architects was installed throughout. Roosevelt also ordered the removal of the Tiffany stained-glass screen installed during the Arthur administration.

William Howard Taft
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William Taft (1909-1913)

Under Roosevelt's successor, renovations to the White House continued. Most notably, the West Wing was expanded significantly in 1909, giving the president a dedicated workspace called the Oval Office. Taft, who weighed about 350 pounds, also had oversized bathtubs installed in the White House's living quarters and aboard the presidential yacht to accommodate his bulk. The tubs were about 7 feet long and half as wide.

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Franklin Roosevelt
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Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945)

As the size and scope of the executive branch of government expanded, so did the need for more office space. A second floor was added to the West Wing, and Roosevelt had the Oval Office moved to its current location overlooking the Rose Garden. An avid swimmer, FDR also had an indoor swimming pool installed at the White House; it was converted to the press briefing room during the Nixon years.

Harry Truman

Harry Truman (1945-1953)

It was no secret that the aging White House wasn't in the best condition — the Army Corps of Engineers had warned of structural issues while Roosevelt was still president. But it wasn't until Truman's piano nearly fell through the floor of the White House residential quarters in 1948 that action was taken. The Trumans moved across the street to Blair House until 1952 while the White House was gutted down to the exterior walls. Among the many modern conveniences the renovation provided was central air conditioning. The total cost: $5.7 million.

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John F. Kennedy

John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)

Although much thought was given to the White House's interior renovations, little care was taken in furnishing the building in a manner befitting its historic character. Enlisting a committee of historians, curators, and the well-connected, first lady Jaqueline Kennedy secured loans of period furniture, artwork, and artifacts, in the process laying the groundwork for legislation that would protect and preserve the White House and its contents going forward. In February 1962, the first lady unveiled the newly furnished executive mansion to 80 million viewers on CBS.

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nixon bowling

Richard Nixon (1969-1974)

Richard Nixon wasn't much into swimming, but he did enjoy bowling, so he had a single-lane bowling alley installed in the White House basement. The pool was drained, covered over, and converted into what is today the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. Building on the work of Jackie Kennedy, First Lady Pat Nixon worked with the Committee for the Preservation of the White House to acquire some 600 examples of 19th century American furniture, art, and decorative craftsmanship.

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jimmy carter

Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)

Aiming to promote forms of renewable and clean energy, President Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof. The energy created by the panels was used to power the executive mansion's water heaters. Reflecting the greater involvement of presidential spouses in national affairs, first lady Rosalynn Carter established the Office of the First Lady with offices in the East Wing.

Ronald Reagan
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Ronald Reagan (1981-1989)

First Lady Nancy Reagan raised eyebrows in 1981 when it was revealed that her renovations to the White House had cost around $1 million (in private donations), and that the administration had given House Beautiful magazine exclusive access to photograph the results. The first lady also spent more than $200,000 on a presidential china service with a bold crimson motif. The White House press room also got a facelift, adding the dark blue curtains and executive mansion's logo to the wall behind the lectern.

Bill and Hillary Clinton
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Bill Clinton (1993-2001)

Like her predecessor Nancy Reagan, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton worked with a designer she knew well (fellow Arkansas Kaki Hockersmith) to add her touch to the White House. Upgrades were made to the Oval Office, Blue Room, East Room, State Dining Room, and Lincoln Bedroom. 

George Bush and Barney
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George W. Bush (2001-2009)

Given that first lady Laura Bush was once a librarian, it's little wonder that the White House Library — its decor a holdover from the Ford administration — is among the rooms she had renovated during her husband's time in office. Working with Fort Worth, Texas, designer Kenneth Blasingame (who also upgraded the Bush's ranch in Crawford) and White House preservationists, she updated the Lincoln Bedroom, the Queen's Bedroom, the Oval Office, and the Cabinet Room.

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obama's in white house garden
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Barack Obama (2009-2017)

With a keen interest in growing and eating organic food, First Lady Michelle Obama had a garden installed on the White House grounds, serving the produce for family and state occasions. Obama also had the first-floor Old Family Dining Room upgraded and opened for public viewing. Among the works of art Obama chose from the permanent collection for display is "Resurrection," a painting by Alma Thomas, the first Black female artist to be so honored at the White House.

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Trump and Melania
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Donald Trump (2017-2021)

Updates to the White House included the practical (leaky West Wing roof repairs and an improved HVAC system in 2017) and the personal (a chandelier in the private presidential dining room). First lady Melania Trump, meanwhile, oversaw a reworking of the Rose Garden in the summer of 2020, the first such work on the iconic outdoor area since it had been established in 1962 by Jacqueline Kennedy. Not much changed after Joe and Jill Biden were elected to replace the Trumps — just a rug in the Oval Office and some art. Civil rights icons Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks are now honored, and a painting of science-loving Benjamin Franklin has replaced one of Andrew Jackson, who embraced slavery and uprooted Native Americans.

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President Biden Speaks With Ukrainian President Zelensky In Oval Office Call
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Joe Biden (2021-Present)

Not much changed after Joe and Jill Biden were elected to replace the Trumps — just a rug in the Oval Office and some art. Civil rights icons Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks are now honored, and a painting of science-loving Benjamin Franklin has replaced one of Andrew Jackson, who embraced slavery and uprooted Native Americans.