When my friend and former Orlando Sentinel DC Bureau colleague Sean Holton told me in 1994 the White House is fake I thought he was nuts. Sure enough, he was right. See the story below, a revelation I’ve never seen elsewhere (and certainly something White House tourists are never told). A longtime Trail Mix pal whose birthday is today, Sean (aka Lardass Liberal, native of Independence, Missouri) continues a 2-year struggle with brain cancer but hasn’t lost the irreverent attention to detail this story vividly demonstrates:
WHITE HOUSE IS IN WASHINGTON, RIGHT? OR IS IT?
The Orlando Sentinel
Author: Sean Holton, Sentinel Washington Bureau
Date: Mar 26, 1994
Put your ear to the ground. Listen carefully. The footsteps of dead presidents still echo here. The echoes rise from an unmarked grave on a small Army post, beneath an open field now used as a baseball diamond.
This is where they buried the White House. There! Can you hear? The old second floor, still creaking under the weight of William Howard Taft. And listen: The private curses of Abraham Lincoln, witnessed only by the plaster walls of a long-lost hallway.
And that? Whispered prayers rising to the ceiling of the East Room, where Franklin Delano Roosevelt lay in a flag-draped casket.
In 1950 and 1951, the dump trucks came across the Potomac River to Fort Myer, laden with rubble from the demolition of the White House interior. The wrecking job, which spared only the sandstone facade of the White House, was the first stage of President Harry Truman’s reconstruction of the building.
More than four decades later, memories of the Truman demolition have faded. For many, it has taken its place in a long succession of much less significant “redecorations” and other cosmetic changes.
Relatively few Americans are aware that the reconstruction left the most famous building in Washington – the ultimate symbol of power in America – a gutted shell of the house begun by George Washington in 1792. That shell aside, the real structure is a mere 42 years old.
Fewer still are aware – or have even considered – what became of the bulk of the old building torn down by Truman.
And almost no one, including the post historian at Fort Myer, realizes that the forgotten dump under the ball field at the Army post is the likeliest final resting place of most of the old White House.
“Every now and then somebody comes by looking for where they buried the White House,” said John Parker, 69, facilities and maintenance chief at Fort Myer who came to the post in 1955 and is the senior employee. “I’m afraid the only people who could tell you about this now are in the cemetery.”
That’s exactly the way the government wanted it. The commissioners who oversaw the White House renovation reused a fraction of the old interior materials, gave some articles to museums and sold some bricks and fragments as souvenirs.
But the great majority of the White House – tons of surplus material and rubble – was disposed of quietly. It was either parceled out for use by other government agencies, burned or buried in the Fort Myer dump.
The records of the commission, preserved at the National Archives, show that the board was adamant about making sure the salvaged materials and the debris lost their association with the White House as quickly as possible.
“They were rather mysterious at the time,” White House architectural historian William Seale said of the renovation commission. “You can imagine how that would have been turned in a story – about the original White House going to the dogs.”
On one level, the story of what happened to the White House is just a story about trash. Nobody keeps track of trash, and nobody cares about it much once it is thrown out, especially if it was thrown out four decades ago.
But, as archaeologists say, much about a civilization can be learned by studying its trash. So consider, for a moment, the rubble of the White House. Listen to what it teaches.
First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was upstairs at the White House last June, leading NBC News reporter Katie Couric and a nationwide television audience on a tour.
“There is a wonderful feeling to this house,” the First Lady said. “Because when you think that this is the corridor that, you know, Thomas Jefferson walked up and down and that Abraham Lincoln walked up and down . . .”
It is the same corridor only in a metaphysical sense. Physically speaking, Clinton and Couric were standing in an entirely different corridor, at the heart of a modern building that Jefferson would barely recognize from the inside.
Thanks to Harry Truman, the White House of today is an 800-ton structural steel skeleton fleshed out by nearly 8,000 cubic yards of concrete, 110 tons of reinforcing steel and 257,500 square feet of wire mesh. At least a third of the building’s 1.5 million cubic feet lie below ground, in sub-basements and subterranean mechanical areas that extend out beneath its lawns.
The halls that Lincoln walked, supported by huge timbers anchored in load-bearing, masonry walls, no longer exist. The interiors that Hillary Clinton surveys today are a facsimile.
Truman had to do what he did because the old building was falling down. Walls were cracking. Floor beams were splitting. Ceilings were pulling away from their moorings.
In 1949, he pushed Congress to set up a commission to study the options and oversee the project. Commissioners decided to keep the outer walls of the White House intact, tear down everything else and construct a completely new building within.
Only the hollow facade of history would be preserved.
The White House had been renovated before. After the British burned the building in 1814, it took three years to make the gutted structure habitable for President James Monroe.
Theodore Roosevelt had ordered a substantial renovation of the mansion in 1902 and built the West Wing, where the Oval Office is located. In 1927, Calvin Coolidge had raised the White House roof to convert the attic into a roomy third floor.
But what Truman did was unprecedented.
Before demolishing the interior, the renovators had removed furniture and major ornamental objects such as mantelpieces. They carefully cataloged, dismantled and stored wood paneling, trim and doors, and plaster cornices on the assumption that they would be used in reassembly.
Then the wrecking of floors and walls began. The tons of bricks, plaster and timber that had been the backbone, ribs and muscle of the old house were reduced to rubble. The debris was shoveled through windows, down wooden chutes and into waiting dump trucks.
Photographs of the gutted White House taken in early 1950 are shocking to view today. The cavernous interior, stripped of all partitions, looked like the inside of a huge gymnasium.
“The shell made an enthralling sight, much in demand among those who could get clearance to go and see it,” Seale writes in The White House: The History of an American Idea. “President Truman delighted in showing the spectacle.”
The wide-open space stretched 168 feet by 86 feet from outer wall to outer wall and some 80 feet from the roof to the excavated, dirt floors of two new sub-basements.
Truman, in keeping the original sandstone walls intact, had preserved what he thought was the soul of the building.
But many of the workers had a less than sacred view of the site. Preserved at the Archives are penciled notes from weekly contractors’ meetings, recording the problem of “too much urinating in corners upstairs” and, in one instance, “in door to state dining room.”
The building that emerged from Truman’s renovation – the White House of today – is architectural taxidermy, American history stuffed and mounted.
The historic skin, the sandstone exterior walls, once supported the entire building. Now they are responsible only for holding up their own weight, and masking the mid-20th century structure inside.
The new, steel-spined White House would prove an apt metaphor for a renewed, post-World War II nation with a powerful, new executive branch.
Viewed more cynically, it would become a symbol of an American penchant for coating the harsh realities of its new role with a sentimental, historic veneer. And today it stands as the true centerpiece in a city of masks, where the truth lies hidden behind the public scenery of news conferences, committee meetings, talk shows and photo opportunities.
But Harry Truman left much more than a sparkling new building to the ages. He left something else in a dump across the river. That something, the newer building’s silent, older counterpart, is a monument to a buried past.
Is the carved, marble mantelpiece that John Quincy Adams leaned against in 1828 a more historic object than, say, the galvanized metal pipe through which Calvin Coolidge drew a glass of water in 1928?
Once you start investing any physical object – let alone an entire structure such as the White House – with an abstract notion like ‘historic value,’ you’re headed down a slippery slope. If the fireplace must be saved, why not the plumbing? If the wooden door frame, why not the wooden lath? If the woven rug, why not the rubber floor runner?
“Where do you put your values?” White House historian Seale asked. “And we usually put it on ornamental things.”
That was the stance taken by the White House renovation commission when deciding which materials to use in the rebuilt structure and which to discard.
Some ornamental objects, such as mantels and the paneling in the State Dining Room, were reinstalled.
Other material was reused in a different form, such as old floor timbers that were remilled as basement paneling.
The remainder, the overwhelming bulk of the old White House, was deemed “surplus material” and divided into four categories defined by the commission.
“Class I” included identifiable objects “which have intrinsic as well as historical value” but for which there was no room to reuse. This category was small, including mainly the surplus mantelpieces – 20 in all – distributed to the Smithsonian Institution and other museums across the country.
“Class II” included “usable building materials of considerable practical value . . . with little or no sentimental value.” Thus, 95,000 bricks were sent to Mount Vernon for use in restoration work at George Washington’s home. Another 10,000 bricks went to Fort Myer to build a dance patio at the enlisted men’s club.
The Washington, D.C., prison at Lorton, Va. got 12 crates of White House window trim, three crates of door frames, 22 crates of used doors, one truckload of assorted trim and three truckloads of tile, according to commission records.
The prisoners also got some of Calvin Coolidge’s plumbing.
The commanding officer at Fort Belvoir, Va., happily received 12,000 square feet of White House wood flooring. He used it for a roller rink.
Surplus materials in “Class III” got the most publicity. These were small pieces of stone, brick and wood that were of no practical value but were parceled out in “souvenir kits” to the public in 1951.
The commission compiled nearly 24 shelf-feet of paperwork tracking individual souvenir sales, but those records were thrown out by the Archives in 1962. Tracing those bits of the White House now is like tracking ashes scattered over the ocean.
Even after all that distribution, commission records indicate, the bulk of the old White House remained to be dealt with.
So there was a final category of surplus materials known as “Class IV.’ This was defined as “material either of no value, or which has disintegrated into what is normally classified as trash,” according to an early draft.
This included the tons of broken plaster, crumbled bricks, splintered boards and shattered flooring that came from the main demolition. By definition, such material had no identifiable value so very little was written about exactly what it was.
But somewhere amid this unrecognizable heap was the ceiling of the State Dining Room, wrecked on Feb. 3, 1950, according to weekly demolition reports. Then, on March 1, the East Room ceiling came down. Then, March 17, the brick walls on the famous first floor were cut to bits.
In his research a decade ago, Seale interviewed commission officials who described a caravan of trucks rolling “from the White House to Fort Myer and back for 22 days, hauling building debris to be used as landfill. This was done in some secrecy, to avoid bad publicity . . . ”
Seale reports that as workmen rushed to complete the renovation, crates of the old White House woodwork and other relics that had been carefully cataloged and stored for reuse “were being thrown on the trucks and removed to landfill.”
There simply was no time to restore those pieces fully. The new White House would be trimmed with new, machine-pressed woodwork.
Rex Scouten, a Secret Service agent for Truman and now the White House curator, said from time to time an old plaster ornament from the building turns up in the hands of a private collector.
The commission did not record the precise location of the landfill on the Fort Myer grounds. Today Army officials at the post are stumped, claiming they have no record of it or any other landfill from that era.
John Parker, the maintenance and public works chief who goes back further than anyone else at Fort Myer, arrived in 1955. That was three years after the White House renovation was completed, so he has no firsthand knowledge of the project.
But Parker does know that the large landfill under the baseball field was the base’s main dump from 1939 to about 1960.
A lengthy Army history of Fort Myer from 1951 mentions completion of an “earthfill” that year on the other end of the base, near the generals’ quarters, but Parker said that area was an unlikely site for a trash dump.
The post “history” records such minutiae as the 185 teeth pulled that year by the post dentist, the vaccinations of “sixty-six (66) pets” and the results of Ping-Pong tournaments.
But not a word about where they buried the White House.
Was Truman right? Did the soul of the White House reside in its skin? Or did it go to the dump?
“It’s very interesting,” Seale said. “Because it’s interesting from the point of view of what is real and what is not, and what do you believe and what you do not.”
What does Seale believe is real?
“You know, the rubble served its time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s sacred.”
First of all, he said, the current White House has absorbed the history of 42 years and nine presidencies since its renovation. That counts for a lot.
But more importantly, he said, the real power, or soul, of the White House lies not in its physical reality but in its role as a symbol.
“I, myself, as well as I know it . . . cannot stand in the Blue Room and not think those are the same floors Dolley Madison stood on holding her telescope looking for the British to come,” he said. “It’s a magical sort of thing.”
The historian compares its enduring value to that of a Shinto shrine in Japan that has been ritually torn down and rebuilt – in exact replica – every 20 years for the past 1,000 years.
“The White House has been pulled apart, rearranged, gutted by fire and renovation, reassembled; yet it is always the same,” he writes. “Its idea has become its essence.”
But what about the forgotten rubble here at Fort Myer, just over the hill from Arlington National Cemetery? If the soul of a thing is truly all that matters, why do people visit graves?
No matter how long you listen, the answer to that question does not rise from this ground.
Here, there are only echoes.