Little-Known White House Facts: From the 1 Item that Survived a Fire to Who Haunts the Halls!

By the Numbers

Boasting 55,000-square-feet of living space, the White House has 132 rooms, 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, eight staircases and three elevators, all spread across six floors.

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A Pretty Parcel

A house that big calls for a lot of land — the White House fence encloses 18.7 acres.

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A Fresh Coat

If you set out to paint the outside surface of the White House, you’d need at least 570 gallons of paint, according to the White House Historical Association.

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An International Influence

The White House wasn’t actually designed by an American citizen. James Hoban, the architect who was chosen to design the property in 1792, was Irish, but moved to Philadelphia in 1785 to start his career stateside. 

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The First President in Residence

Hoban submitted a design for the White House which was selected by President George Washington, who also chose the site for the property and commissioned the construction. Despite all that, Washington never got to live in the home — and remains the only U.S. president not to live in it while in office.

In fact, Washington never even stepped foot inside the finished. White House, as construction finished in 1800, and Washington died in 1799. President John Adams, seen here, was the first president to live in the White House after it was completed. 

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Who Built the White House?

The White House was built by enslaved people. First Lady Michelle Obama notably spoke about this fact during her time in the Residence. 

“The government did not own slaves, but officials did hire out enslaved laborers from their owners,” according to White House records, many of whom were trained on the spot to do the work of brickmakers, carpenters and quarrymen. Enslaved people also did much of the labor on the U.S. Capitol building and other government buildings in Washington, D.C. 

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A Common Misconception

Many believe that the White House was painted white to cover burn marks from when the British set fire to the building in 1814 (during the War of 1812), but this is incorrect — the building was first painted white in 1798 using a lime-based whitewash.

This was done “to protect the exterior stone from moisture and cracking during winter freezes,” according to the Historical Association.

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Out of the Ashes

Only one item was saved from the 1814 fire: a portrait of George Washington, which still hangs inside today.

First Lady Dolley Madison — who lived in the White House at the time — refused to leave the burning building until the portrait was accounted for. 

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A House by Any Other Name

The White House has had many names over the years — including the “President’s House” and the “Executive Mansion” — but it has exclusively been called the White House since 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt decided the unique name  would help distinguish it from other government buildings. 

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The Origin of the Oval

The Oval Office was created by President Howard Taft in 1909, when he called for an expansion of the West Wing, where the office is located.

A fire in that wing broke out on Christmas Eve in 1929, damaging much of the structure and its furnishings. 

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Creating a Custom

Taft was also the first president to ever use the Oval Office as his official workplace, and all presidents have since followed his lead.

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Wartime Lawn Care

During WWI, President Woodrow Wilson used the White House lawn to make a unique statement about his support for American troops — by having a flock of sheep graze on the grass.

“The sight of sheep grazing on the south lawn of the White House may seem unusual, but during World War I, it was a highly visible symbol of home front support of the troops overseas,” the White House Historical Association explains. “The flock, which numbered 48 at its peak, saved manpower by cutting the grass and earned $52,823 for the Red Cross through an auction of their wool.”

The Wilson family also stopped entertaining at the White House and worked to raise money for the war effort through various public programs in an effort to be “a model American family.” 

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Presidential Additions

The White House isn’t all bedrooms and offices — it also has a number of unique spaces, including a flower shop, dentist office, 42-seat movie theater (commissioned by President Harry Truman), bowling alley (commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt) and music room (a former sitting room which Hillary Clinton converted so her husband could play his saxophone). 

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Making It Accessible

The White House first became equipped with accessibility features like ramps and elevators when Franklin D. Roosevelt came into office, as he suffered from polio and used a wheelchair in private.

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Who Died Inside?

Ten people have died in the White House, including two presidents (William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor) and three first ladies (Letitia Tyler, Caroline Harrison and Ellen Wilson). Willie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s son, also died there in 1862.

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Haunting the Halls

Many have claimed that the ghost of Abraham Lincoln haunts the White House, with sightings taking place in the Lincoln Bedroom and Yellow Oval, specifically.

White House doorman Jerry Smith was the first to report a sighting to a newspaper in 1903. First Lady Grace Coolidge, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands are three notable figures who have also claimed to have seen Lincoln’s ghost.  

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White House Weddings

Eighteen weddings have taken place on the White House grounds, the first of which occurred in 1812, when Dolley Madison’s sister, Lucy Payne Washington, married Thomas Todd on the State Floor. Most of the other weddings that took place were for people in the president’s family — most often their children.

For example, Tricia Nixon, President Richard Nixon’s daughter, is seen here marrying Edward Finch Cox in the Rose Garden.

The White House Historical Association has a full list of all the weddings that have taken place.

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The Tenant-in-Chief

The president makes a salary, and with that in mind, they receive a bill every month for their stay in the White House.

They don’t have to pay rent, but they are charged for meals, toiletries, some clothing and household items, private events and staffing for those events.

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The First Spooky Season

The White House was decorated for Halloween for the first time in 1958.

First Lady Mamie Eisenhower helped put the festive decorations up both indoors and outdoors, then she hosted a lunch for the wives of staff members in the State Dining Room.

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Christmas Tree Count

The record for the most Christmas trees decorating the White House is held by the Clinton administration, who put up 36 trees in 1997 all with the theme of “Santa’s Workshop.”

The record was previously long held by the Eisenhower administration, which spread 26 trees across each floor of the house.

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A Home for Hoops

The White House tennis court was first built in 1902, and was moved to another location during Taft’s renovation of the West Wing.

The court was altered again when President Barack Obama came into office, modifying it to allow for basketball as well as tennis. 

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