Socks at the White House Press Briefing Room lectern in 1993
Wikimedia Commons
Socks at the White House Press Briefing Room lectern in 1993
Wikimedia Commons

Commanding Trivia

As the White House stands ready to welcome the next president, Joe Biden, its hallowed halls remain packed with history, some of it rather unexpected. In fact, there's much more to the nation's most famous address than the Oval Office and fancy state dinners. Here are some of the more eyebrow-raising facts about America's imposing seat of executive power. 

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George Washington Inauguration
Heritage Images/Contributor/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One President Never Lived There

Bummer, George. Our nation's very first president, George Washington, picked the site for the White House and gave its design a thumbs-up. But he left office in 1797 and died in 1799, three years before the federal government made the leap from Philadelphia to the new capital. The brand-new White House welcomed the second president, John Adams, in 1800.

Waxen bas-relief on glass of Hoban, circa 1800
Wikimedia Commons

The Architect Was Irish

Nine competitors proposed designs for the White House, and the contest was decided by a single judge: George Washington. Although Thomas Jefferson likely submitted a design under a pseudonym, the honor went to James Hoban, an Irish-born architect who was inspired by the Leinster House in Dublin, a grand Georgian building that now houses the Irish parliament. 

Outgoing President George W. Bush meets with President-elect Obama in the Oval Office on November 10, 2008.
Wikimedia Commons

It Was Built by Enslaved People

Although D.C. commissioners initially planned for European laborers to build the new capital, including the White House, they couldn't attract enough of them. Ultimately, over 200 known enslaved workers set about building the White House, and at least 100 more were employed in nine presidential households, in positions from chef to maid to valet. At least a dozen presidents, from Washington to Ulysses S. Grant, were slave owners.

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Jefferson and Latrobe's West Wing Colonnade, in this nineteenth-century engraved view, is now the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room.
Wikimedia Commons

No One's Exactly Sure Where the Cornerstone Is

Experts agree that the first stone of the White House was laid in 1792, but as for where it is, well ... that's an open question. Although it was long assumed to be on the building's northeast corner, a letter constituting the only known written account of the day it was laid says it actually was placed in the southwest corner, by some rather intoxicated Freemasons. Because the plaque identifying the stone faces an adjoining stone, uncovering it would be a complex and potentially damaging endeavor

Easter at White House, [Washington, D.C., 4/5/26]
Library of Congress

You Used to Be Able to Walk Right In

It's "the people's house," after all. In the early 1800s, visitors could stroll the grounds as often as they wanted, perhaps popping into the East Room to shake the president's hand around lunchtime. Although James Monroe added an iron fence in 1814, the gates remained open for much of the next century, closing permanently only during World War II. Security has increased steadily since then, with barriers going up at an unprecedented clip after protests over racial injustice in summer 2020.

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Teddy Roosevelt Official White House portrait by John Singer Sargent
Wikimedia Commons
Marine One prepares to land on the South Lawn, where State Arrival Ceremonies are held.
Wikimedia Commons

The White Paint Is Pricey — and It's Not Made in America

Turns out that keeping the White House white is an expensive, time-consuming process. It takes roughly 570 gallons of paint to keep the place looking fresh, and it's not just any paint. It's Duron's "Whisper White," imported from Germany, and it costs $150 a gallon, according to Fox Business. Why not pay $20 at Lowe's? The special paint is designed to help ward off moisture and protect the historic structure. 

A view of the south façade of the White House on May 10, 1950.
Harry S. Truman Library Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Truman Had It Completely Gutted

As important as the White House is, the federal government hasn't always been on top of maintenance. The piano of Margaret Truman, daughter of President Harry Truman, even managed to fall through rotting floorboards in 1948. Truman and his family eventually moved across the street while the crumbling interior was gutted and rebuilt around a new steel skeleton. Cost of the project: $5.4 million — or roughly $59 million in today's money.

The Red Room as designed by Stéphane Boudin during the presidency of John F. Kennedy
Wikimedia Commons

It Has 132 Rooms ...

What would you do with 132 rooms? (A game of hide-and-seek would be pretty epic, we imagine.) The White House includes a whopping 35 bathrooms, so don't worry if nature calls. And although 132 rooms might seem like a massive amount of space, consider this: Buckingham Palace has 775 rooms, including 78 bathrooms. 

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Nixon Bowling
National Archives

... Including a Bowling Alley and a Chocolate Shop

Sure, plenty of the White House is devoted to formal entertaining, but there are some more casual places to unwind, too. There's a movie theater, a game room, a jogging track, a tennis court, an outdoor pool, a putting green, and even a bowling alley, installed by President Richard Nixon. And it's a good thing there are so many places to burn calories — there's also a chocolate shop in the basement

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FDR's swimming pool was completed in 1933.
National Archives

There Used to Be an Indoor Pool

And there still is — kind of. When Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, he added a 50-foot indoor swimming pool so he could stay fit, tricking it out with underwater lighting and other technology that was fancy for the '30s. He used it almost every day, and it was also a favorite of Presidents Truman and Kennedy, according to Atlas Obscura. But in 1970, President Nixon decided the media needed more space, and the White House Press Briefing Room was built directly overtop the now-empty pool. The old pool is now home to computer servers and other media equipment.

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Whitehouse Bunker
Harry S. Truman Library Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

There Are 2 Bunkers (Probably)

There's not a ton of official info on current White House safety features for obvious reasons. But there are at least two underground spaces observers know of: the Presidential Emergency Operations Center, a secure space under the East Wing that was built during World War II, and a newer, multilevel bunker that was built starting in 2010, according to The Washington Post. It's reportedly five stories deep and completely sealed off, with its own air and food supply. 

British Burning Washington
Wikimedia Commons

It's Been on Fire at Least Twice

If you paid attention during history class, you're probably well aware of the first fire. In 1814, British forces famously set fire to the White House, forcing first lady Dolley Madison to flee, saving a portrait of George Washington in the process. The second, lesser-known blaze broke out in the West Wing on Christmas Eve in 1929. It required 130 firefighters to bring it under control as President Herbert Hoover watched from the top of the West Terrace, puffing a cigar. 

ghost dream
CasPhotography / istockphoto

There Are Plenty of Spooks and Spirits

The White House has been the setting for many a spooky story, and is supposedly home to many ghosts, presidential and otherwise. Several people have claimed to see the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, while the sound of Andrew Jackson's laughter and Thomas Jefferson's violin have spooked others. Dolley Madison is said to patrol the Rose Garden, while a British soldier roams the White House grounds with a torch. Ghost stories about a young boy called "The Thing" so irked President William Howard Taft that he told staff members they would lose their jobs for passing them on. 

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Whiskers pulling a cart at the White House, with Russell Harrison and his children
Wikimedia Commons

Dogs and Cats Aren't the Only Animal Occupants

Picture a presidential pet, and it's likely a dog — maybe the Obamas' Bo and Sunny — or a cat like Socks, the Clintons' feline friend. But there have been plenty more exotic animals. President Teddy Roosevelt's pets included guinea pigs, a lizard, a pig, a badger, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, and even a bear. President James Buchanan briefly kept a pair of eagles. Alligators are also rumored to have resided in the White House with at least two presidents, but these claims are unproven.

Related: Adorable Photos of Patriotic Pets

The 1995 Blue Room Christmas tree
Wikimedia Commons

It Has Hosted as Many as 81 Christmas Trees

Elaborate Christmas decorations are a White House tradition, but some administrations have embraced the holiday spirit more than others, if their Christmas tree count is any indication. The Obamas put up a record-busting 62 Christmas trees in 2015, but in 2018, the Trumps managed 81 — that is, if you include Melania Trump's 40 infamous blood-red topiaries in the count. 

The Whitehouse
Wikimedia Commons

It's Worth Nearly $416 Million

How much would you pay for the White House? According to Zillow, fair market value in January 2021 was close to $416 million. (If you'd rather rent, you're looking at $1.65 million a month.) That's up from just shy of $400 million when President Donald Trump moved into the White House in early 2017. (For the record, that was still about four times more than the worth of his famous New York penthouse, according to Architectural Digest.)

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HP 3000 Series III
Wikimedia Commons

The First Computer Arrived in 1978

The White House gained its first computer, a Hewlett-Packard 3000, during the Carter administration. The West Wing also soon was equipped with its first printer: a behemoth water-cooled IBM that measured 8 by 10 by 3 feet. More familiar technologies were slower to gain a foothold. President George H.W. Bush was the first to use email in 1992, while the first White House website was produced under President Bill Clinton in 1994.

White House replica in Atlanta, Georgia
Wikimedia Commons

There Are Several Replicas — Including One in Iraq

Most of us will never live or even set foot in the White House, but how about something, well, White House-inspired? Private homeowners constructed at least two replicas in the D.C. area, and a few are scattered across the South, reports Washington Week. And then there's the Chinese version, built by a real-estate magnate who even thought to include an Oval Office, and an Iraqi White House owned by a Kurdish businessman who installed a Turkish bath. 

Oval Office
Wikimedia Commons

Each President Gets to Redecorate

Historic though it is, White House decor isn't set in stone. The incoming president receives a $100,000 allowance to put a personal stamp on both the residence and the Oval Office. The most historic rooms (think the Lincoln Bedroom and the like) remain largely as is from administration to administration. In 2016, then-candidate Trump offered to build a $100 million ballroom on the property, but the proposal was rejected by the Obama administration.

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Luci Baines Johnson and Patrick Nugent and their parents on the south portico, 6 August 1966
Wikimedia Commons

It's a Popular Wedding Venue

Turns out White House weddings might be a bit more common that you think. At least 18 couples have tied the knot at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Lucy Payne Washington, sister of Dolley Madison, kicked things off with her wedding to Thomas Todd in 1812. Most ceremonies have taken place in either the East Room or the Blue Room, but modern couples have favored the Rose Garden.