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White House Lives : History: The Carters sunbathed on its roof. Roosevelt's children roller-skated on its floors. Residents recall problems, perks of their days in the presidential mansion.

February 27, 1992|PATRICIA DANE ROGERS and NANCY L. ROSS | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Harry S. Truman called it a "glamorous prison." To Gerald R. Ford it was "the best public housing I've ever seen." Mary Todd Lincoln referred to it as "that Whited Sepulcher."

The White House, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year, has been the home of 39 Presidents and their families since John Adams moved in. The original mansion took eight years to build. When his wife, Abigail, arrived in November, 1800, with her eight servants to become its first chatelaine, she found a house that bore little resemblance to the executive mansion of today. In a letter, she complained that the main staircase had not been built yet and that the meager supply of firewood had been used to dry the plaster walls.

"It is an establishment big enough to need 30 servants to run it properly. There is a great unfinished audience room (the East Room) I make a drying room of, to hang up the clothes in."

Almost two centuries later, First Lady Barbara Bush tells a vastly different tale.

"Thanks to Nancy Reagan, those private quarters are perfectly beautiful," she writes. "In fact, because of her work, this is the only old house that George and I have ever moved into . . . where everything works."

Nancy Reagan herself would describe the White House with awe. "There's a feeling of wonderment," the former first lady recalled. "Are you really in this beautiful house where so many have lived before you, so much history has been made?"

In Reagan's memoirs, "My Turn," she details perquisites that made it feel like a palace. It was, her son Ron concluded, "an eight-star hotel."

But living there can have its bittersweet moments, according to some former first families. Betty Ford recalled feelings of loneliness after years in an Alexandria, Va., neighborhood.

"You also feel very much that you are in that proverbial fishbowl everybody talks about," she said.

Luci Baines Johnson, who was 16 when her father, Lyndon, became President after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, recalls those days with emotion. "For me, it was the best of times and the worst of times, but it's a march through history and there's not a moment you live there that you are able to be oblivious to that."

Congress passed the Residence Act in 1790 authorizing a house for the President. The cornerstone of the executive mansion--which no one has been able to locate during the current renovation--was laid Oct. 13, 1792.

In the years between the family of the second President, who lived there for only four months, and the Bushes, who are about to begin their fourth year, the White House has been sacked and burned, gutted, extended, modified, improved, renovated and redecorated.

"The White House is the first of the great public buildings of Washington," said historian William Seale. "George Washington's concept of a capital city was visionary. The government was highly experimental yet it flourished. It is the model for the Western world. . . . You can't deny its power."

The main house, designed by James Hoban, now covers 55,000 square feet on four floors, not including basements and wings. There are 130 rooms, give or take a few broom closets. Those most often seen by the public and visitors are the Blue, Red, Green and East reception rooms on the main floor and the Oval Office in the West Wing.

The living quarters consist of five rooms on the second floor designated for private use--the West Sitting Hall, a dining room, a dressing room, one bedroom and a sitting room--plus the third floor, which by 1927 had added six bedrooms and three sitting rooms.

There is no constitutional requirement that the President live in the White House, according to Seale. Grover Cleveland disliked it so much that he and his wife lived elsewhere--in Northwest Washington--as much as they could until his second term of office ended in 1897.

"All the Presidents' wives hated to leave," wrote J. B. West, White House chief usher who served first ladies from 1941 until his departure in 1969. "They appreciated the services and status that went with their role, no matter how much they yearned to be out of the spotlight. . . . "

In her memoir, "First Lady From Plains," Rosalynn Carter remembered how her family found privacy on the White House roof, where they sunbathed.

"There's no place to hide, no place to stomp your feet," Luci Johnson said. "Harry Truman was chastised for building the Truman balcony but he said he did it because he wanted to have a place to sit alone with his wife." As a teen-ager, she said, she courted in the third-floor solarium. So did other Presidents' children.

Over the years the White House has seen 10 weddings and seven deaths involving immediate presidential family members (plus a skeleton embedded in the walls found during a 1902 renovation, according to Seale), a number of births, illnesses, courtships and affairs.

Everyday life tended to be chronicled in letters, diaries, memoirs and biographies.

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