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If these walls could talk: The architectural history of the White House

How each generation incorporates its of-the-time improvements to a structure built in the early 1800s is continually a challenge.

The White House, synonymous with American government, is almost as old as the country itself. Every president, starting with George Washington, has had a hand in it—from selecting its site, as Washington did, to making major renovations, as Theodore Roosevelt did, to making the house feel like a home, as every president has done. The building is currently going through a $3.4 million West Wing renovation as President Donald Trump is away on a working vacation, reportedly including plans to replace the heating and air conditioning system.

The building at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has withstood arson (during the War of 1812) and has been the backdrop to key decisions both large and small.

While some presidents have had their personal opinions about the White House, it remains, nonetheless, a central piece of America’s identity.

And it remains, in the most literal sense of the word, for three major reasons, said David Fannon, assistant professor of architecture and civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern.

The centuries-old building has endured because it’s built out of durable materials, it continues to be used by people, and it has major social significance.

“If you think of the Old North Church (in Boston), or the White House, regardless of how useful they really are, they’ve taken on a significance beyond mere function,” Fannon said. “They endure because people want to have a connection to history.”

That historical significance, Fannon said, makes older buildings exempt from other amenities people might expect in a new building. He offered Fenway Park as an example. There are seats with obstructed views that fans are willing to tolerate—seats they might not be as amenable to in a brand-new park.

“Once buildings are stained with history, we’re willing to look past other parts of it,” he said.

Furthermore, these historic sites are timestamps, expressions of our society as it was when they were built.

“Sometimes the only record of a way of life at a certain time is its architecture,” Fannon said.

Every time someone builds a building, “we’re embedding everything about our worldview into the way we make that building,” he said.

A heavy responsibility, indeed.

Structures like the White House, then, which need to function through years and years of innovation, bear the marks of progress.

In the Carter administration, for example, there was a concerted effort to “green the White House,” Fannon said. Upgrades included new windows, new energy-efficient lightbulbs, adding solar panels, and more. (Those roof-top solar panels were later removed by a subsequent administration.)

“That was very of-the-time,” Fannon said. “That was right during the energy crisis, and Carter was very aware that ‘America’s house’ should be an example for the rest of the country.”

How each generation incorporates its of-the-time improvements to a structure built in the early 1800s, however, is continually a challenge. Fannon noted that in many buildings of the White House era, electricians ran electrical wires through pipes in the walls that used to carry gas for gas lighting fixtures.

“How do you make these old buildings gracefully accept changes that the people who built it never even thought of?” Fannon asked. “It certainly makes you humble as an architect. You can’t know everything about the future.”

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