The White House

Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English. I’m Faith Lapidus. And I'm Doug Johnson. This week, go inside the house that presidents have called home for more than two hundred years.

America's first president supervised the building of the White House. Yet George Washington and his wife, Martha, never had the chance to live there. It was completed after he left office in seventeen-ninety-seven. Since then, America has had forty-two other presidents. All of them have lived at sixteen-hundred Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, in Washington, D.C. This November, Americans will decide who lives in the White House for the next four years. President Bush and his wife, Laura, know their way around the place already.

If John Kerry is elected, he and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, would meet with White House employees after the election. An official would walk the Kerrys through the house. They would move in on Inauguration Day next January twentieth.

The White House has more than one-hundred-thirty rooms. It also has collections of more than forty-thousand objects. Presidential families often find things in storage that they like when they move in. Two of the Carter children, for example, found a chair among the unused furniture in the White House. Jimmy Carter served from nineteen-seventy-seven to nineteen-eighty-one. He was the thirty-ninth president. The chair belonged to the sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, had bought the chair. The Carters made it part of their home.

Wives of presidents have all added to the White House in some way. Jacqueline Kennedy, for example, created a colorful garden. It is named in her honor.

George Washington had great hopes for the home he started. Washington entered office in seventeen-eighty-nine. In seventeen-ninety, he signed an act of Congress. It said the federal government would occupy an area in the District of Columbia near the Potomac River. President Washington and the French city planner Pierre L'Enfant chose the land for the new presidential home.

A competition took place to find a designer. An architect named James Hoban won five-hundred dollars and a piece of land for his design. Hoban was an immigrant from Ireland. He chose a design similar to Leinster House in Dublin, where the Irish Parliament now meets. Grayish white sandstone was chosen for the walls of the new home of the president. Work started in seventeen-ninety-two. George Washington lived in Philadelphia during this time but watched over the work.

America's second president, John Adams, and his wife, Abigail, were the first to live in the new home. They moved in on November first, eighteen-hundred. The home was not yet finished. John and Abigail Adams lived in six rooms and used others to entertain guests. But they lived there for only four months.

John Adams lost re-election to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson tried to finish work on the home. So did James Madison, the next president. But, in eighteen-fourteen, British forces invaded Washington. They burned the White House. Dolley Madison, the president's wife, tried to save valuable objects from the fire. She saved a painting of George Washington. She took it with her as she fled for safety. This famous painting by Gilbert Stuart hangs in the White House to this day. After the fire, James Hoban came back to help rebuild the house he had designed. During this time, it was painted white.

Over the years the White House has been enlarged and almost totally rebuilt. In nineteen-sixty-one, Congress decided that furniture of historic and artistic value would always be White House property. In effect, Congress made the White House a museum.

As visitors enter the White House, they see pictures of past presidents on the walls. Among them is Franklin Roosevelt, the thirty-second president. Roosevelt led the nation through the end of the great economic depression and World War Two. He was elected four times, more than any other president. He died in office. Today, the Constitution limits president to two terms.

In another hall on the first floor are paintings of first ladies. In one painting, Nancy Reagan wears a beautiful red dress. She looks like the Hollywood movie actress she once was. Her husband, Ronald Reagan, also was an actor. Later he became the governor of California and, later still, the fortieth president of the United States. Another room off this hallway contains a collection of fine dishes made of china. Each president has added to this collection.

Wide marble steps lead to the next floor. It is called the State Floor. Presidents use rooms here for official duties and to entertain guests. The largest room on the State Floor is the East Room. News conferences and music performances take place here. But this room has had other uses over the years. The daughter of John F. Kennedy, the thirty-fifth president, rode her tricycle in the East Room. Abigail Adams hung her family’s clothes to dry from the wash.

Other rooms on the State Floor are named for their colors: the Blue Room, the Green Room and the Red Room. The president meets with diplomats and other guests in these rooms.

Nearby is the State Dining Room. This is where official state dinners take place. Important visitors sit with the president or first lady, or at tables with the secretary of state or other officials.

Another room is the Treaty Room on the second floor. This is used for meetings. Important documents have been signed there. At different times, this was the cabinet room or the president's office.

The third floor of the White House contains bedrooms for guests. One of these is called the Lincoln Bedroom. Abraham Lincoln led the country through the Civil War in the eighteen-sixties. He freed the slaves in the South.

No story about a famous house would be complete without a ghost story. Lincoln was killed soon after the fighting ended. A supporter of the defeated South shot him at Ford's Theater in Washington. But some say the ghost of Lincoln walks around the White House at night.

The White House has an East Wing and a West Wing. In the West Wing is the Oval Office. This is the large rounded office where the president works. Rooms in the East Wing offer private living space for the president and his family. The home of the vice president is on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington.

President Carter's wife Rosalynn described the family area in the White House as surprisingly small. Chelsea Clinton, the daughter of Bill Clinton, the forty-second president, had a favorite room in this area. It was the sunroom.

One day, during World War Two, a local woman stopped at the White House. She asked to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An aide to Missus Roosevelt was going to tell the visitor that the first lady was busy. But the young woman said her husband was fighting overseas.

Eleanor Roosevelt heard this and invited her to come in. She served tea and told her visitor that she, too, had loved ones fighting overseas.

It seems hard to imagine such a visit today. In fact, the White House was closed to visitors after the terrorist attacks on the United States on September eleventh, two-thousand-one. Now, groups can take tours of the White House. But they must organize them through a member of Congress.

The White House also offers an online tour at its Web site. The address is whitehouse.gov. Again, that address is whitehouse.gov.

Our program was written by Jerilyn Watson and produced by Caty Weaver. I'm Doug Johnson. And I'm Faith Lapidus.. Join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA, in VOA Special English.