Editor's Note: The White House offers tours to the public; but visitors must make reservations through their members of Congress instead of waiting in first-come, first-served lines. Tours will be offered Tuesdays through Saturdays. Those wishing to take tours must submit the name, date of birth and Social Security number of every member of their group to their U.S. representative or senator. The member of Congress then will submit the names to the White House for security screening. For more information, visit www.whitehouse.gov.
Throughout much of the 19th century, the public could visit the Executive Mansion and actually meet the president face-to-face. While access is far more restricted today, the White House remains one of Washington's most-visited places, and provides an intriguing glimpse into the nation and its leaders.
Presented with a slew of proposals, some of which would have rendered the president's home on par with the great palaces of Europe, a special commission selected the design by Irish architect James Hoban, and construction began in 1792. Despite his pivotal role in its creation, George Washington is the only U.S. president not to have lived in the White House. (He resided in Philadelphia during the mansion's construction; John Adams moved in in 1800).
The structure was nearly destroyed in 1814, in a fire set by British troops during the War of 1812, but was rebuilt almost entirely according to the original plan, with one notable exception. To cover fire damage on the exterior, the original sandstone was painted white, giving rise to the name 'White House'. Each occupant has left some kind of architectural legacy to the property, but the building looks today very much as it did almost two centuries ago.
Inside the tour entrance is a hallway lined with presidential portraits and a common area from which you can view three ground-floor rooms, but only from the doorway. On the right is the White House Library, beautifully furnished in the Federal style, with walls of books by American authors. Across the hall is the Vermeil Room, named for its gilded silver furnishings, and the China Room, which displays dishes and glassware used by presidents past.
There are five rooms open to the public on the second floor, the most striking of which is the East Room. On the far wall hangs a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, the only item which has remained in the White House since it was built. This is also the room in which Lincoln, Kennedy and five other presidents who died while in office laid in state.
From there you proceed into the rainbow portion of your tour: the Green, Blue and Red rooms. Each is furnished to reflect a particular period and president. The Green Room served as Thomas Jefferson's dining room. The Blue Room features furniture bought by President James Monroe after the fire of 1814. The Red Room garishly lives up to its name, and is said to be a favorite among first ladies.
Also on the State Floor is the State Dining Room, which seats 130 guests. On the mantle above a central fireplace is a quotation from John Adams: "I Pray Heaven Bestow the Best of Blessings on This House and All that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof."
As you exit the final room of the tour you will emerge into the Entrance and Cross halls. Carvings in the marble floors indicate the dates of construction and major renovations.
When you depart through the Northeast Gate, turn to the left and head toward the West Wing, which houses the Oval Office and the White House Press Office. The wing is closed to the public, but if you look through the iron fence, you can often see television camera crews preparing for that familiar "live from the White House" backdrop.
-- Ben Abramson
Visitor's information Guided tours can be arranged through the office of your representative or senator.
Directions/Parking: By Metro: The White House is best reached from McPherson Square (Blue, Orange lines). The Visitors Center is best reached from Federal Triangle (Blue, Orange lines).
By car: The streets surrounding the White House are closed to traffic. There are private parking garages downtown, and metered spaces on the street.
Official Internet Site: http://www.whitehouse.gov
Special Note: The White House is also open during select special events throughout the year. A complete listing is available on the White House Web site.