The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence

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9781250000279: The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence
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Critically acclaimed author Robert Klara leads readers through an unmatched tale of political ambition and technical skill: the Truman administration's controversial rebuilding of the White House.

In 1948, President Harry Truman, enjoying a bath on the White House's second floor, almost plunged through the ceiling of the Blue Room into a tea party for the Daughters of the American Revolution. A handpicked team of the country's top architects conducted a secret inspection of the troubled mansion and, after discovering it was in imminent danger of collapse, insisted that the First Family be evicted immediately. What followed would be the most historically significant and politically complex home-improvement job in American history. While the Trumans camped across the street at Blair House, Congress debated whether to bulldoze the White House completely, and the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, starting the Cold War.


Indefatigable researcher Robert Klara reveals what has, until now, been little understood about this episode: America's most famous historic home was basically demolished, giving birth to today's White House. Leaving only the mansion's facade untouched, workmen gutted everything within, replacing it with a steel frame and a complex labyrinth deep below ground that soon came to include a top-secret nuclear fallout shelter,

The story of Truman's rebuilding of the White House is a snapshot of postwar America and its first Cold War leader, undertaking a job that changed the centerpiece of the country's national heritage. The job was by no means perfect, but it was remarkable―and, until now, all but forgotten.

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About the Author:

ROBERT KLARA is the author of the critically acclaimed 2010 book FDR's Funeral Train, which historian and author Douglas Brinkley called "a major new contribution to U.S. history." Klara has been a staff editor for several magazines including Adweek, Town & Country and Architecture. His freelance work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, American Heritage, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications. Klara makes his home in New York City.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE
MOVING DAY
 
 
I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof.
—letter from President John Adams to his wife; quote chiseled into the State Dining Room’s mantel
There is a story about President Calvin Coolidge taking a walk around the White House grounds one evening with Missouri senator Selden P. Spencer, who pointed to the luminous mansion of carved sandstone and remarked, jokingly, “I wonder who lives there.” The lugubrious Coolidge responded, “Nobody. They just come and go.”1
Indeed they do, and no two stories of how a new president and his family come to live in America’s most famous house are alike. Most, however, share a common trait: The White House is a prize that candidates fight for, often for years. But a handful of others gain admittance by fate alone, and this was the case with Harry S. Truman. “If there ever was a man who was forced to be President,” Truman once said, “I’m that man.”2 The news reached him and his family on the afternoon of April 12, 1945. It struck them like a bolt of lightning. It came, fittingly, in the middle of a rainstorm.
*   *   *
In those days, the Trumans lived in a second-floor apartment at 4701 Connecticut Avenue, in a quiet neighborhood tucked into the city’s northwestern quadrant, not far from Rock Creek Park. On that April afternoon, Bess glanced out the window at moody gray skies over the city and did not like the looks of them. Her husband—a last-minute choice to be Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vice president—was scheduled to fly up to Rhode Island to deliver a speech. Air travel frightened Bess Truman; many things did.
Down the hall, the Trumans’ daughter, Margaret, was primping in her bedroom mirror. The twenty-one-year-old college junior was preparing for a date that evening. A few feet away sat the cantankerous Madge Wallace, Bess’s eighty-two-year-old mother, who was visiting from Missouri. Grandma Wallace hurled one probing question after another about the evening’s suitor, while Margaret, dabbing on her makeup, minted perfect responses. She knew the drill by now. Nearly twenty-six years earlier, Madge Wallace had lost Bess at the altar to that “dirt farmer” Harry Truman, and she was bent on assuring that her lovely granddaughter didn’t wind up with a bum, too.3
Harry Truman was far from being a bum, but his salary as public servant had never amounted to much. In the eleven years since Harry’s narrow election to the Senate in 1934, the Trumans had lived in a series of tiny apartments. Back home in Independence, the Wallace family home was a fourteen-room Victorian with stained-glass parlor windows. But Washington was a big town. Beginning with the family’s first flat—a cramped price gouger at $150 a month—getting by had been difficult.4
It was why the Trumans adored 4701 Connecticut Avenue so much. They’d chanced on their two-bedroom apartment in 1941, and the onset of the war would show them just how lucky they’d been. World War II brought a scarcity of everything, especially housing. In 1942, Washington’s population swelled by a quarter of a million people, all of whom went looking for apartments. Soon, ten thousand boardinghouses were operating in the capital city, many filled with young women from the hinterlands, “government girls” who’d arrived to push the paperwork of war.
*   *   *
In a city of old row houses and overcrowded hostelries, the Trumans’ building was a vision from a fairy tale—a white brick prewar of five stories embracing a leafy courtyard trimmed with flower beds. Apartment 209 faced the front and took in the morning sun. It had two bathrooms, a sleeping porch, and even enough space for Margaret’s Steinway baby grand. For all this, the family paid $120 a month. Truman’s recent elevation to the vice presidency had bumped his monthly take-home pay to exactly $982.45, making their apartment an outright steal.5 And yet the attachment they’d formed with their apartment had since run deeper than the family budget. As solid Missouri stock, the Trumans lived modestly. Ostentation made them uncomfortable. So far as they cared, FDR was welcome to the carved paneling and marble fireplaces of the White House; the Trumans were perfectly happy with their rental.6
At 6:00 P.M., the telephone rang. Margaret walked over and answered it. It was her father calling. Margaret began her usual kidding with him—telling him she had a date and wouldn’t be home for dinner—but Truman cut her off and demanded to speak with “Mother.”7 Confused and hurt over her father’s uncharacteristic “voice of steel,” Margaret surrendered the phone and trooped back to her room.8 Bess Truman took the receiver and nestled it into her graying curls.
“Bess,” Truman barked, “I’m at the White House. President Roosevelt died about two hours ago. I’m sending a car for you and Margaret. I want you here when I’m sworn in.”9 And then he hung up.
In their nearly twenty-six years of marriage, Bess Truman had never heard a tone in her husband’s voice quite like the one that echoed in her head now as she put the receiver back on the hook.
*   *   *
It’s not known whether the Truman women said anything to each other as the heavy black limousine thrummed the cobblestones on its way down to the White House, but they didn’t have to. Already, the realization was dawning that the lives they’d known for the past eleven years had been swept away in the time it took to answer a phone. Moments after the conversation had ended, a reporter from the Associated Press raced up the stairs to knock on the apartment door. Still in her slip, Margaret opened it without thinking—only to slam it back shut in the reporter’s face. Bess and Margaret tried to sneak out of the building through the back door, but the press had already staked the whole place out, leaving them to run a gauntlet of photographers before reaching the limousine. This, they knew, was only the beginning.
They’d been so lucky up to now. Until a cerebral hemorrhage felled him in his cottage retreat down in Warm Springs, Georgia, FDR had been the most captivating president of the twentieth century. His laughter, his crafty storytelling, that thousand-watt smile—all of it kept the newsmen in a permanent state of distraction. It permitted the Trumans to live as ordinary people. Margaret pursued her B.A. in history at George Washington University. Bess would slide behind the wheel of her ’41 Chrysler Windsor to visit the stores downtown, where, to her enduring delight, nobody recognized her.10 Bess’s shock and grief over Roosevelt’s passing were genuine, but before long it became clear to her that she was actually mourning not one loss, but two—a president, and her privacy.11
Now the news of FDR’s death cut into radio broadcasts and spread in whispers down the sidewalks. Traffic on Connecticut Avenue knotted between Cumberland and Chesapeake streets as drivers slowed up to rubberneck at the building where the new president lived.12 Or used to live. What were the chances the Trumans could ever go back there now?
As the crow flies, the White House stood only four miles from 4701 Connecticut Avenue. To Bess’s mind, the place might as well have been on the moon. Decorum would, of course, require her to feign happiness over the chance to live in the executive mansion. Privately, though, she made her true feelings about the White House clear. “I just dread moving over there,” she said.13
*   *   *
The White House wasn’t ready to take them anyway, at least not yet. The days following FDR’s death had plunged the usual efficiency of the mansion into chaos. No sooner had Harry Truman been sworn in than the planning for Roosevelt’s funeral began. The Roosevelts’ things had to be packed up. FDR and Eleanor had lived in the White House for twelve years. Their Victorian love of clutter had, by the end, left the mansion looking like a Paris flea market. Truman took it upon himself to ease the strain on Mrs. Roosevelt. “Now don’t you be in any hurry to leave the White House,” he told her. “Take all the time you need in the world.”14 What the new president failed to understand was that hurrying was one thing Eleanor Roosevelt liked to do. On Monday, April 16, the day after her husband was laid in his grave, she pulled on an old pair of shoes and a tattered housedress and began tagging furniture, oil paintings, ship models, and barrels of china. “The amount of packing to be done was appalling,” Elliott Roosevelt remembered, but his mother refused to slow down. “I’ll be out by Friday,” she warbled, and she meant it.15
As the movers came and went, usher J. B. West decided all the activity was good cover for a personal mission. Taking a notebook in hand, he quietly slipped out of the mansion, crossed the street, and climbed the steps of the yellow town house just off Lafayette Square. He wanted to meet Mrs. Truman, his new boss.
The door on which West was knocking belonged to Blair House, the White House’s official guest residence. The Secret Service had decided to install the Truman family there immediately after FDR’s funeral. The agents had learned by degrees what Bess had probably suspected from the start: A president simply cannot live in an apartment building. The Trumans’ neighbors at 4701 Connecticut Avenue had been good sports about it all—the security checkpoint hastily set up in the lobby, the demands for identification. But, as Margaret re...

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