The White House for Sale

The White House under construction, 1950s
The White House under construction, 1950s
Stair Landing being removed
The White House under construction, 1950s

If a piano leg falls through your ceiling at home, it does cause some excitement, but you patch up the hole and move on. What is the reaction, though, when it happens not in your house, but the White House.

That’s exactly what began the most comprehensive remodeling of the White House since the British burned it thoroughly in 1814. President Harry S Truman was relaxing with the family in the Family Quarters on the Second Floor, when chandeliers shook and the piano leg created a divet the size of a pothole right through the floor in the Private Dining Room.

In 1946 his plan to expand the White House by adding additional offices along the South Wing of the White House met with quite a lot of resistance. Congress appropriated the money, but then withdrew it. But, in 1948, Old Harry added a balcony on the South Portico, because he had the money and, complaints or not, he had it built.

So, the whole idea of going again to Congress to ask for additional funding for the total reconstruction of the White House was now urgent. Engineers did studies and concluded that the whole structure was in danger of collapsing. President Truman insisted that the White House was standing only “…out of force of habit.”

Turns out that the third floor added in 1927 was just too much weight for the old wooden beams to bear. A proposal to tear the whole structure down and rebuild it was seriously considered. Instead, it was agreed, that a new, more modern, steel structure could replace the original wooden beams leaving the original outer Aquia sandstone walls intact. And so, in 1949, the Trumans moved across the street to Blair House and a 3 year reconstruction of the White House began.

I recount this story, because much of the 1952 renovation of the White House produced an official collectible that is becoming more and more prevalent these days on online auctions. Blocks of wood, handmade 18th century nails, and bricks were some of the original White House construction material carefully packaged and sent to those who requested them for a small fee and postage.

Included with every package was a small unique brass authentication plaque giving the debris a historic legacy and a lasting collectibility. It says simply “Original White House Material Removed in 1950” featuring the coat-of-arms of the president in the center and six stars to the right, six stars to the left, and one star in the center just below the coat-of-arms. It is this brass plaque that should accompany any order of official White House construction pieces.

Many of these items have been auctioned off online and through traditional auction sites from $200 to $500, up almost double from just several years ago.

Incidentally, many of the 95,000 original bricks and stonework removed during the reconstruction of the White House were donated to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington in Virginia. For example, the cornerstones for the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center are composed of the Virginia Aquia sandstone salvaged from the White House reconstruction.

Most of the brick and some of the stone were also used in reconstructing Washington’s greenhouse, built in 1784-87 and destroyed by fire in 1835. Over the years, many of the remaining pieces of White House stone have been used to make repairs to the Mansion piazza and steps.

So it would seem a natural legacy that the history of the White House would finally connect with its most prominent president, the only one who did not live there. And, the White House and its history also connects many of us with our most prominent citizens, the ones we call Mr. President.

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