Construction began on the White House on October 13, 1792, and was finally finished on November 1, 1800. Construction was slower in those days, because they didn’t have the equipment we have today. The current White House has 132 rooms. The original White House had 100 rooms. The White House has 54,900 square feet. The White House sits on 18 acres of land. It all it is an impressive building, but there is more to it than just that.
There have been a number of rooms that began as one thing, only to become something else later on. One of the rooms that has had a couple of identities is the Press Briefing Room. These days it is the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. It was so named after White House Press Secretary James Brady, who was shot and permanently disabled during the assassination attempt on President Reagan. That room, located in the West Wing of the White House was not always such a necessary room, mostly because press briefings are really more of a modern-day thing. The room has always existed, however. In 1909, it was the White House laundry, and during President Truman’s time in office (April 12, 1945 – January 20,1953) it was the White House pool.
By 1950, the White House was 150 years old and in a serious state of disrepair. In order to make is inhabitable again, the entire building was gutted and rebuilt to make it more stable. It also seemed like a good time to improve on its design, so some improvements and additions were made. White House architect Lorenzo Simmons Winslow designed and built an air raid shelter under the East Terrace on the orders of naval aide Rear Admiral Robert Dennison. There had been a bomb shelter before, but it was built in 1942 and with the invention of the atomic bomb, the old shelter was not strong enough to withstand such an assault. Because little research had been conducted into how to withstand such an assault, construction of the shelter took more than two years and required the removal of the East Terrace entirely. Unfortunately, the 1952 shelter was rendered obsolete when the first test produced a force of 10.4 million tons. This shelter was designed to withstand a force of only 30,000 tons, so this would never work.
In addition to the new nuclear shelter, a tunnel was added. These days those tunnels are big in the news, but back then, they were probably a little-known addition. This reinforced concrete channel ran from the West Wing to the East Wing. Though not enough to stop a nuclear incident itself, the tunnel allowed quick passage from one end of the White House to the other, as well as access to the new air raid shelter. The presence of the tunnel demonstrates just how concerned the Truman White House was about securing itself against air assaults at that volatile time in history. That first tunnel inside the White House isn’t the only underground feature. In 1987, a second tunnel was built under the name Project ZP. That tunnel, accessible from a secret passage within the Oval Office, leads to the basement of the East Wing and on to the Treasury Building. Its construction, which was largely secret, created a large sinkhole in the White House rose garden. The tunnel was reportedly built to quickly get the president out of the office during an incursion, but it was also used at least once to sneak former president Richard Nixon into a foreign policy meeting. I’m sure there are other changes to the White House, that we are not privy to, and may never know, because there are always secrets in this kind of building.