courtesy of Plumbing & Mechanical Magazine, July 1989
President George Bush (this article was first published July 1989) can take modern conveniences for granted. The White House is like a super hotel that contains all the high-tech appliances available. It’s part of the perks that go along with being the leader of the free world. And among the least of his worries is whether the plumbing works.
But the President’s home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue hasn’t always been a posh address. In fact many presidents had to tolerate primitive living conditions, including poor plumbing and heating.
The White House had a reputation for being behind the times in domestic improvements. Congress in part can be blamed for that situation, because although the White House is a private residence for the President and his family, it is public property, and appropriation decisions were made on Capitol Hill. Frequently, the necessary expenditures weren’t allotted, and the building decayed rapidly in the first half of the 20th century. Before its major renovation during the Harry S. Truman administration in 1948, it was in such rough shape that officials discussed tearing it down and replacing it with a completely new building.
White House History: Every president except George Washington has lived in the White House. Although the “Father of Our Country” didn’t reside there, he was instrumental in the location of the site as well as in the establishment of the Federal City in the District of Columbia, which would be named after him following his death in 1799. Originally named ‘The President’s House,” it was known as such until the Civil War (1861-65), when it assumed the name, “Executive Mansion”. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) established the title, “White House”, by Executive Order.
The residence was built on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. A contest was held for the design of the building. Irish architect James Hoban who is called the first architect of the White House, won the $500 prize. The design is said to have been based on that of the Duke of Leiner’s palace in Dublin.
The cornerstone of the White House was laid on Oct. 12, 1792 – the 300th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Western Hemisphere. But it wasn’t until November 1800 that second President John Adams (1797-1801) and his wife Abigail moved in. When the Adamses arrived, much of the house was disheveled from ongoing construction – most notably the East Room. Since there was no plumbing of any sort, servants had to lug water into the house from a spring in Franklin Park, five city blocks away. There were no bathrooms, and an agitated Mrs. Adams complained that “we had not the least fence, yard or other convenience without, and the great unfinished audience room, I made a drying room of – nor were there enough lusters or lamps, so candles were stuck here and there for light – neither the chief staircase nor the outer steps were completed, so the family had to enter the house by temporary wooden stairs and platform.”
When the British raided Washington on Aug. 24, 1814, they torched the White House, and the blaze gutted the interior and damaged part of the exterior. Dolly Madison was able to salvage some items, including the Declaration of Independence and the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington.
Reconstruction commenced in the spring of 1815, again under Hoban’s guidance. Except for the East Room and the North and South Porticoes, restoration was finished in December 1817.
There have been several alterations since the White House was rebuilt after the 1814 fire. The first significant alteration was a $500,000 project in 1902 during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. The principal innovation was the construction of the West Wing, where the executive offices were moved and where they remain today. Separating the residence and business quarters, allowed for the second floor to be used solely as a domicile.
Because there was a restricted amount of money available for this renovation, as well as limited time and the crude equipment of 1902, it was impossible to do all of the work that needed to be done. Nevertheless, plumbing was a central part of the plan, as bathrooms were installed and pipes and electrical wiring replaced as part of the first floor refurbishment. In order to safeguard the attic from fire, workers installed a new standpipe with fire hose that ascended into the attic and out to a place where the city fire department could easily use it in case of fire.
The ensuing report explained, “In the house proper, more than one half of the lower floors is given up to dressing rooms, with toilet rooms attached, conveniences heretofore entirely lacking. The removal of the pipes from the corridor gives a spacious passageway dignified by the fine architectural features constructed by Hoban.”
In 1927, a new steel-trussed roof and fire-resistant third floor were installed during the Calvin Coolidge administration (1923-29). However, these improvements provided only temporary relief and the house had deteriorated rapidly by the time Truman authorized major reconstruction in 1948. One account notes that the President’s decision was prompted by his noticing that his bathtub was settling into the floor.
Reconstruction 1948-52: By 1948, it was apparent that the weary White House was in serious disrepair and that if it didn’t get a much-needed facelift, it would have to be demolished. So President Truman (1945-1953) authorized the formation of a committee to oversee the rebuilding process.
The Commission on Renovation of the Executive Mansion was faced with the immediate responsibility of deciding between several possible plans for reconstruction – none of them simple, all of them costly and all requiring much time.
Comprising the committee were R. E. Dougherty, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers; Douglas W. Orr, president of the American Institute of Architects; and W. E. Reynolds, commissioner of Public Buildings. Lorenzo S. Wilson, White House architect, and Howell G. Crim, chief White House usher, acted as advisors. John MacShain was the general contractor for the project. During the renovation, the Trumans lived at the government-owned Blair House across the street. It took nearly all of Truman’s second term in office to complete the work.
The $5.7 million project was the most extensive the building had undergone in the 150 years it had been in existence. Architectural Digest noted in a pre-construction article that had there not been the addition of so many pipes and wires through the years, the structure would have been in satisfactory condition. “Today there is scarcely a beam in the entire building that has not been bored or cut through dozens of times to accommodate water and sewer pipes, gas pipes, heating pipes, electric and telephone wires, automatic fire alarm and guard signal systems, elevators, a fire extinguishing systems and other mechanical innovations. In the very structure of the building itself, generations of architects and builders have concealed the completed mechanical equipment of a modern office building, none of which was provided or even contemplated by the original builders.”
A commission recommended survey revealed that the plumbing system was “largely makeshift by modern standards [and] unsanitary,” and recommended that it be abandoned “except to such extent as a few of the fixtures may be found suitable for reinstallation in areas of subordinate importance.”
The preservation of existing mechanical, electrical and communications facilities were described as “impracticable,” and recommendations for the plumbing system were outlined. The new system included new piping and fixtures, except those fixtures found to be in good condition.
After the reconstruction, the mechanical area was enlarged to 160,000 cubic feet and included a transformer room, an electrical repair shop, a carpenter shop, and compressor rooms for the air-conditioning system. In the basement are storage rooms, laundry, engineers’ offices, dentist’s office, control room, water softener, men’s and women’s locker rooms and lavatories, incinerator and elevator machinery.
While the exterior and much of the interior of the White House was constructed of materials which are expected to last for 300 years, the plumbing fixtures were installed with the idea that they could be replaced without major reconstruction in about 20 years. This was on the theory that the plumbing fixtures are constantly being improved in appearance and mechanical operation.
The plumbing fixtures are of high-quality standard construction. Because all piping above the basement is concealed in places where its renewal would be difficult and expensive durable brass pipe was used to minimize the necessity for repairs. All hot and cold water lines are red brass while the heating, vent and waste lines are brass and copper tube.
The hardware is solid brass and bronze. Since there were “objections to flushing valve water closets due to noise in flushing,” low noise flushing valve outfits were installed. Drainage piping below the basement floor is extra-heavy cast iron.
Lavatories are of vitreous china with combination supply fixtures. Those on the second floor are fitted with drinking water faucets combined with the supply fixtures. Showers are provided in the bathrooms on the second and third floors. The second floor showers are in separate enclosures; those on the third floor are over the bathtubs. Each shower fixture is fitted with an automatic water temperature regulator.
The bathrooms were fitted with shower cabinets as well as bathtubs. The shower cabinets have glass doors as well as bathtubs. Before the renovation, none connected with the guest rooms, and overnight visitors had to walk across a hall. Now all guest rooms have adjoining baths and separate baths have been provided for the servants.
Andrew Tully described the Truman bathroom in the May 1952 issue of The Plumbing News: “If they offered me any room in the house, I’d take Mr. Truman’s bathroom. In the first place, it’s big-a spacious grotto of cool, gleaming, green and white tile, where a guy could set up housekeeping if things get tough. Then there are the fixtures all white … and a tribute to 20th century plumbing. Take the bathtub, for instance. None of those squat little bushel-basket-like jobs you see in some modern homes. Our President’s tub is a good seven feet long – the kind in which a man can stretch out in when he comes home from the office, all tired out from working over a hot Republican.”
“A good seven or eight feet away on the opposite wall is the widest wash basin I ever saw. My four kids could all wash their hands there and never rub elbows. In the middle of the two water faucets is a third tap – for ice water. Of course, there’s a shower stall with a glass door. This is a couple blocks across the room in another direction. All around the room are little sets of tile shelves.”
The Great Bathtub Debate: The question of which President was the first to introduce a bathtub into the White House has produced several answers, most of which could probably be construed as correct, depending on your viewpoint. Most often given credit for the first tub is President Millard Fillmore (1850-53), widely believed to have had it installed in 1851. At the core of the debate surrounding Fillmore is a story by prominent journalist H.L. Mencken which appeared in the Dec. 28, 1917, edition of The New York Evening Mail. Mencken recanted the Fillmore tub tale as fiction 10 years later when it was being hyped and embellished in newspapers, journals and reference books.
The story related the origin of a mahogany and sheet lead tub built in 1842 by Adam Thompson of Cincinnati, Ohio. Fillmore was said to have inspected the tub while stumping through town as Vice President in 1850, and was so impressed that he ordered it for the White House after succeeding Zachary Taylor to the Presidency later that year.
Mencken later explained that he concocted the tale as a diversion for a country that was suffering the horrors of World War 1. That admission led to the story being subsequently referred to as “The Mencken Hoax.” However, the article continued to be printed as fact long after the author’s confession.
Tapping The White House: The early White House lacked running water. The idea was conceived during the Madison administration before the house burned, but water wasn’t actually piped in until the Jackson administration. In 1829 (when Jackson took office), the Committee on Public Buildings had decided not to pipe running water to the White House, opting to concentrate funds on the North Portico. During that period, most hotels and private mansions had indoor plumbing, particularly in the bathrooms and kitchens. Springs, cisterns and wells fed the system.
By 1831, the Commissioner of Public Buildings purchased a bubbling spring at Franklin Square in order to pipe water up to the White House in trunks or wooden pipes made of drilled-out logs. As the ponds were dug and the laying of pipe got under way, the engineer decided to substitute iron pipe for the wooden . This was for fire protection, not convenience to the household. A fire engine, purchased by Monroe, was kept with the White House coaches.
By the time ground was broken in the spring of 1833, water was still provided by two original wells located in the breezeways between the house and wings. Laborers dug three reservoirs: one at the Treasury, one at the State Department, and a third at the White House. At the reservoirs, stonemasons set bulky platforms or “pedestals” where the pipes came to the surface. Water flowed freely through the pipes, which by means of grading were kept on a decline to the pedestals, where the water formed spout-like fountains that shot directly into the pools. Situated on pedestals were pumps made of iron and trimmed with brass, protected by wood pumphouses.
The system was largely functional by the end of May 1833. The motion produced by the splashing fountains kept the water in the reservoirs from stagnating. A deep bed of clean sand was the filter through which the water passed in its movement within the pool. The pipes from the pools to the building were buried in the ground. Since the pipes had to carry water to great heights inside in the entire building at the house, the hand pumps provided the necessary pressure. A pump attendant who took care of reservoirs worked the handles at intervals, filling the pipes as well as the small tin cisterns that had been installed to serve each hydrant.
These pipes were unearthed in 1928, as described in the Washington Sun: “Workmen engaged in street widening operations about Franklin Park have uncovered what engineers declare to be perhaps the last vestige of the original water supply system for the White House. A cistern with a tunnel leading toward the White House was uncovered near the corner of 13th and I Streets. The cistern was built of well-made brick masonry, with a subterranean tunnel leading down 13th Street.”
During Van Buren’s tenure, the shower baths in the East Wing were improved and several copper bathtubs were added to the two already put there under Jackson. Portable tubs had long been used for bathing in the bedrooms and dressing rooms upstairs. Servants carried the water in buckets up the little service stair from the water heaters in the kitchen. There would be no running water upstairs for many years to come. The bathing room below was spruced up with compartments and wardrobes in the interest of privacy and convenience. It was probably used only by the President and other men of the family, with the women continuing to use tin tubs in the bedrooms.
Declining the traditional President’s bedroom to the south, Andrew Johnson (1865-69) chose a north side chamber on the opposite side of the guest room from his wife’s. Between this and the guest room was a small room containing various bathtubs but no plumbing. Johnson had this made into a fully – equipped bathroom with a barber’s chair. Records show that by 1876, water to several tubs and water closets was supplied by pipes connected to a 2000 – gallon water tank in the attic.
In April 1882, during the Arthur administration, plumbers began removing old pipes from within the walls and replacing them. New septic fields were created. The easternmost room of the West Wing was converted to a lounge for the use of men guests after dinner, and connected to the main conservatory by a small stair. Other bath and toilet rooms were remodeled with new tile, wallpaper and fixtures. In the family quarters there were two such rooms, one on the northwest and one large one on the north side that had been partitioned into various compartments opening into the service hall. The President’s office had one, but another had been built off the attic stair landing for the use of the private secretary.
Only two bathrooms served Teddy Roosevelt’s family quarters. One was for the Presidential bedchamber; the other, a “family bathroom” for everyone else, including guests, had three doors in addition to having partitions only head-high, making compartments for lavatories, toilets and bathtubs. All rooms of the second floor opened off the long hallway and each of the seven bedrooms had its own bath, complete with white ceramic tile and nickel plate.
President and Mrs. Woodrow Wilson (1913-21) used the two rooms of the Presidential Suite almost as a separate apartment. In the smaller of the rooms, the sitting room, they ate their breakfast and occasionally lunch or dinner. It was an awkward, crowded room, and the bathroom and closet, added in the renovation of 1902, threw the mantelpiece off center.
A swimming pool, new bathrooms and a variety of other conveniences and improvements were continually added, as the third floor became increasingly important to the functioning of the second.