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I need not tell anyone here that the White House has had a long and storied history. Built between 1792 and 1800 with the assistance of early African Americans both free and enslaved, destroyed by fire by the British in 1814 and updated in less than optimum ways as modern conveniences came along, the White House like anything else began to show its age.
By the time Truman came into the office after the death of Roosevelt in 1945, the structure was in a serious state of decay.
Floors no longer merely creaked; they swayed. The president’s bathtub was sinking into the floor. A leg of Margaret’s piano broke through the floor in what is today the Private Dining Room. Engineers did a thorough examination and found plaster in a corner of the East Room sagging as much as 18 inches. Wooden beams had been weakened by cutting and drilling for plumbing and wiring over 150 years, and the addition of the steel roof and full third floor in 1927 added weight the building could no longer handle. They declared the whole house to be in imminent danger of collapse.In letters Truman wrote to his wife, he jokes about the condition of the building.
"The damned place is haunted, sure as shootin. . . . You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off." ~Harry Truman, in a letter to his wife Bess, September 8, 1946Cosmetic surgery was no longer an option. The White House was in need of not merely a renovation, but an intervention. It would have to be gutted and the interior completely rebuilt. The President was moved across the street to the Blair House and reconstruction on the mansion began in early 1948. The project was ambitious and the task monumental. A photographer named Abbie Rowe was hired to document the process.
"The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth. I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin," he wrote to her in June 1945.
It would fall to Abbie Rowe to keep the complete photographic record of the renovation of the White House, a project to which he devoted a major part of his time and talent between 1948 and 1952. In the process he produced hundreds of detailed black and white photographs to document almost every aspect of the work that transformed the White House to meet the complexity of the modern presidency while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original James Hoban design. One aspect of Abbie Rowe's photographic duties is unique among those photographers who covered the Presidency. From 1949 to 1952, he served as the official photographer for the renovation of the White House.The Smithsonian has published a collection of Rowe's photographs on flickr. I had known about the Truman renovation, but had never seen these photographs and they are astonishing.
Northeast View of the State Dining Room during the White House Renovation, 01/23/1952
President Harry S. Truman and First Lady Bess Truman Returning to the White House after the Renovation, 03/27/1952
The result of this effort gave us a White House that has stood on solid footing 61 years later and remains a beloved symbol of our democratic process. I urge you to go look at the rest of the collection of photographs. It really makes you appreciate what we were are capable of doing as a nation when we set our minds and our ingenuity on important tasks.
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