Our Presidents' Homes

Just where does one house a president? All we knew as colonists were kings and queens and they lived in castles. England had King George II and III. France – Louis XV and XVI.  Russia had Peter III and Catherine II. Spain had Ferdinand VI and Charles III. Austria had Charles III and Maria Theresa. As you can see, even though our new nation was only familiar with royalty ruling their home countries, we chose to have a president. We did not believe in a monarchy for our new country, we needed to choose someone to represent our country. We decided on a president and our president needed a place to live.  Through the history of our country there have been several places where our presidents have lived – the President’s House in Philadelphia, the White House in DC, and after the White House was burned in 1814, the Octagon House.  Once the White House was restored, the president moved back.  Let’s take a look at these three homes.

The President’s House:
The President's House
virtual entrance
The President’s House was built in 1760s by the widow Masters, but she did not move in until 1767. She only lived there with her children until she gave the house to her daughter when she married William Penn’s grandson, Richard who was the governor. It was the largest mansion in the city and surrounding suburbs with over 30 rooms.  Once the war began, the Penns went to England with the Olive Branch petition and remained there while the war raged. Robert Morris bought the house and rebuilt it after it was destroyed by fire. George Washington was entertained and stayed at the house several times during him visits to Philadelphia.  In 1790 Philadelphia was named the capital of our new country. At that time, Robert Morris offered his home as residence for President Washington. Philadelphians wanted the capital to remain here, but plans were made to move it to a sight in Virginia. George Washington resided at the President’s House from 1790-1797. Martha Washington held dinners here. There was a room where the government’s business took place. Washington held regular public meetings every Tuesday to inform the people of important decisions. A private office on the second floor was the first version our Oval Office.
virtual fireplace


Memorial for Slave Quarters
President John Adams moved into the President’s House in 1797.  He remained there until November 1800 when he moved to Washington, DC.  Washington himself had died in 1799 and a huge funeral was held in Philadelphia to celebrate his life. The President’s House was converted into a hotel and Mrs. Adams stayed there on her way to DC. Over the years, the house was remodeled into stores. The original house was not recognizable and by 1955 every last bit was demolished with no one knowing its true value. The Liberty Bell Center was built over the area. When excavations revealed slave quarters, changes were made and what we have today is a virtual home with memorials to the slaves who worked at the President’s House.

Why is this significant? Pennsylvania instituted the Gradual Abolition Law to keep any more slaves from being brought into the state. After 1780, all future children of slaves were free. Any slaves brought into the state after this time would be free after 6 months living there. This rule was bypassed by taking the slaves in and out during that time period. Since many were figuring a way to get around the law, an amendment was passed prohibiting slaves from being rotated in and out of the state. On the sight, you can see the foundations of the slave quarters, the kitchen and other buildings that made up the President’s House. You can also read about the slaves President Washington brought with him from Mount Vernon.

The White House

The White House:
In 1792 construction began on the White House. President Washington oversaw the construction but never lived there. Washington met with the architect, James Hoban. The building itself was similar to Charleston’s County Courthouse and the Leinster House in Dublin, Ireland. Shortages in supplies caused the White House to be much smaller than originally planned. It was supposed to be 5 times bigger – more like a palace that rivaled those in Europe.  The front portico was not added until 1830.  Before that, a carriage ramp brought visitors to the front of the White House. It was originally called the President’s Palace, the President’s House, and the Presidential Mansion.  The first record of it being called the White House was in 1811. Many believe it got its name by the white paint used to cover the burns from the 1814 burning. Theodore Roosevelt had the White House printed on stationary for the first time during his presidency.

The Blue Room

The Oval Office

The Lincoln Bed
The Red Room

The State Dining Room
The Green Room
John Adams and his wife, Abigail were the first residents. His words are engraved in the mantle of the fireplace – “I pray Heaven to 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”. The White House has over 100 rooms. All the presidents have lived here since 1800 except for when the British attacked Washington, DC and burned the White House. At that time, James Madison and his wife, Dolly moved to the Octagon House while it was being fixed. Just like the President’s House, the White House entertains visiting heads of state. The President greets and speaks to the media to inform them of important decisions. The First Lady has special rooms where she entertains.  The Oval Office is the President’s main office, but the West Wing is where his cabinet members will meet. The upper level is the private residence for the President’s family. Today, you can visit the White House on a tour and see several rooms that are open to the public.  No cameras are allowed in the White House but you can do a virtual tour by visiting the website: www.whitehouse.gov . During Herbert Hoover’s term, a fire destroyed part of the building. Harry Truman gutted the White House during his term and lived at Blair House across the street while it was being fixed.

If you go on a tour of the White House, there are many beautiful rooms you will see.  You begin the tour in the East Collanade. While strolling through here, you view portraits and pictures from the current presidency and past presidents. Upon leaving here, you see the Vermeil Room which has portraits of several first ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt. The room gets its name for the vermeil furniture from France.  Across the hall, you see the library which holds the only bust of the architect – James Hoban. The Blue Room, Green Room, and Red Room are all on this tour. The Red Room is a favorite of many first ladies who will meet with visitors here. The dining room where estate dinners are held is also part of the tour.  This room can hold over 150 people. This is the room which has the saying by John Adams engraved on the mantle. Finally before you leave, you go through the diplomatic entrance.  The current president will come down the staircase to greet dignitaries and escort them through the door to the portico where you depart.

The Octagon House

The Octagon House:
Floor plan of Octagon House
After the White House was burned in 1814, President Madison and his wife moved into the Octagon House. Rumors state Dolly cut out the portrait of George Washington and, thus saving it, brought it to safety. If you visit the White House today, you can still see this same portrait hanging on the wall.  The Octagon House was built between 1798 and 1800, for Colonel John Tayloe III, who also owned Mount Airy Plantation, the richest plantation in Virginia at the time. Tayloe offered his home to the Madisons as the Executive Mansion while the White House was being repaired.  Madison used the circular room above the main hall as an office (just like the Oval Office).  The Treaty of Ghent was signed here which ended the War of 1812.  Although not the typical Octagon, it combines one circle, two rectangles, and one triangle to make its unique shape. While used as a hospital during the Civil War, it is now owned by the American Institute of Architects. Purchased by them in 1899, it was used as its offices until a more modern building was built next door. They are working on restoring the home to its original grandeur.

stairwell in Octagon House

dining room

view from second floor

room where Madison signed Treaty of Ghent


storeroom in basement

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