By Robert Klara
Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s. 371 pp. $26.99
Anyone who has lived through a home renovation will appreciate Robert Klara’s pleasantly diverting book “The Hidden White House,” which chronicles Harry Truman’s effort to rebuild the executive mansion after years of neglect. Media scrutiny of the project was intense, and with Congress holding the purse strings, partisan politics produced extra headaches for Truman and the committee charged with overseeing the project.
Many know of Jacqueline Kennedy’s efforts to renovate the White House, but it was Truman who laid the groundwork for her efforts. Though there had been signs that the mansion was desperately in need of extensive renovation, many of its occupants had made only patchwork fixes. Previous presidents had excuses for their failure to make more extensive repairs (for example, spending money to renovate the White House during the Great Depression would hardly have been welcome), but by the time Harry Truman took up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., these piecemeal jobs would no longer do.
There was talk of ghosts haunting the rooms and halls. But those mysterious noises, bangs and creaks had a more mundane explanation, experts concluded: the aches and pains of a building desperately in need of shoring up. One of the last straws for Truman was the night in 1948 when part of a piano broke through the floor while first daughter Margaret and a friend played a spirited duet. Truman’s “fury over the incident would burn for years,” Klara writes.
Reading Klara’s book, one is struck by what little regard some of the mansion’s previous occupants had for the “people’s home” and its contents. Chester Arthur sent off wagonloads of items to be sold at auction. Theodore Roosevelt had a Tiffany stained-glass window removed from the foyer; it was ultimately sold to a real estate developer for $275. Grace Coolidge put a stop to this by persuading Congress to pass a law protecting the White House’s historic furnishings from being sold off.
In the end the man who spearheaded the renovation lived in the remodeled White House for only short time. Just two days after moving back in in March 1952, Truman announced he would not be a candidate for reelection that fall. As Klara writes, “The only smile in the room belonged to Bess Truman.”