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President's Day: Setting Up House for Jan. 20

January 8, 2009 By:
Amy Leinbach Marquis, JE Feature
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Are you going to be one of the anticipated millions set to attend presidential inaugural ceremonies on Jan. 20 in Washington, D.C.?

How about a little history about the White House that so many and yet so few are chosen to live in.

In 1861, when a Union militia was called in to protect the White House as tensions rose around the nation's capital, soldiers spilled from one elegant room into another, begging for food in the kitchen.

In a starkly different landscape almost a century later, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chatted privately with the Roosevelts in a well-dressed reception room -- marking the royal family's first visit since 1860.

And in 1964, the American quest for equality hit a powerful new stride when Lyndon B. Johnson sat down in the East Room to sign the Civil Rights Act.

But ordinary things happen in the White House, too.

The White House is also a refuge, a place where presidents can reconnect to the things that make them ordinary and human. Ulysses S. Grant ended each day feeding treats to his horses in the stables; Richard Nixon spoke to the portraits of past presidents in a quiet attempt to channel their wisdom. John F. Kennedy discovered a new interest in roses.

The White House -- home to America's finest leaders and stage for its most critical moments -- has evolved dramatically since its construction began in 1792.

When John Adams moved into the new building in November 1800, there was no running water or electricity, and the telephone hadn't yet been invented. The East Room was an unfinished shell, where Abigail Adams hung laundry from clotheslines.

The serene landscape changed dramatically two years into the War of 1812, when the British set fire to several government buildings -- including the White House. The only object saved, thanks to Dolley Madison, was an immense portrait of George Washington hanging in the State Dining Room. (It's the oldest item in the White House today.)

Three years later, James Monroe moved back in. By 1830, the North and South Porticos had been constructed, and a century later, the East Wing was created. The West Wing was rebuilt and expanded in 1934.

A Tree Grows in Washington
But changes go beyond architectural, as the character of the White House is constantly evolving from one president to the next. John Adams planted a magnolia tree, now 200 years old, with branches that fill tall windows on the dining room's south side. Franklin D. Roosevelt converted a long cloakroom into a small movie theater.

Today, the public can enjoy self-guided tours scheduled up to six months in advance through their congressional representative's office. The White House and the surrounding President's Park, which features Lafayette Park, Sherman Park, and the Ellipse, are all part of the National Park System.

For more information about the White House and other national parks, visit the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association at: www. npca.org.

This article is adapted from National Parks magazine, where Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor.

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