Truman’s White House Renovation (1948 to 1952)

Reasons For the Gut Rehab

By 1948, the White House was said to be still standing only "out of habit” after a century-and-a-half of architectural abuse. It had barely survived being burned to the ground by British troops in 1814 and later endured numerous hurried renovations by tenants wanting to put their mark upon the Executive Mansion before the next presidential election cycle began. The watercolor painting above (ca. 1814-1815) depicts the White House as it looked following the fire of August 24, 1814.

Design Flaws

Inadequate interior foundations, installed during its original construction in 1800, were further compromised by major renovations in 1902 and 1927. In 1902, a load-bearing wall was removed to enlarge the State Dining Room on the first floor (the floor and walls above were supported by a steel truss and suspended rod system shown in the photo above). The truss, located within a second-floor West Sitting Room wall, transmitted concentrated loads to already burdened interior foundations.

More worrisome was the 1927 addition built during the Coolidge administration where a third-floor level was expanded into existing attic space. The new concrete-and-steel story transferred much of its weight onto the interior walls (up until then, the original roof and unused attic floor were supported only on the heavy exterior walls). Coolidge’s third-floor addition would accelerate the White House’s structural demise, the warning signs of which were largely ignored by the succeeding Hoover and Roosevelt presidencies too busy with trying to navigate the country through the Great Depression and later World War II.

Evolving Services, Improper Materials

Over the years, bearing walls and structural members were haphazardly cut into to make way for various advances in heating, plumbing, lighting, and communications. Here, myriad electric and telephone conduits on the second-floor corridor are exposed during demolition (left), while a load-bearing brick wall was weakened at some point in time to make way for water pipes (right).

To make matters worse, substandard materials were used in a number of renovation projects. Repurposed scorched timbers from the 1814 fire and used bricks contributed to premature structural failure, while second-hand water piping installed in 1927 caused water damage shortly after installation.

Margaret Truman’s Piano

By the time the Trumans moved into the White House in April 1945, interior walls and floors had settled and pulled away from the mansion’s robust masonry façade, leading Truman to note, “The upstairs floors sagged and moved like a ship at sea.” Then in 1948, first daughter Margaret Truman’s piano broke through the floor in the first family’s private quarters, which prompted a more invasive structural inspection. Here, first daughter Margaret Truman is seated before her baby grand piano in the family quarters of the White House ca. 1948.

Heroic Remedies Required

An underlying support beam had cracked from the weight of Margaret's piano and was temporarily held together by metal clamps in late 1948. According to, Margaret would write: “For most of 1948, we lived in a forest of steel pipes in our bedrooms and sitting rooms. They were supposed to hold up the ceilings, but they could do nothing about the rot that was destroying the old timber.”

Robert Klara, author of “The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence” (St. Martin’s Press, 2013), noted that the “investigation concluded that the problem was in fact a collapsing building, not just a floor, and ‘heroic remedies’ would be required.”

Underpinning the Façade

Restoration work began on December 12, 1949, and was spearheaded by general contractor John McShain, a.k.a. “The Builder of Washington." McShain had built the Jefferson Memorial (1943), the Pentagon (1943), and the FDR Library at Hyde Park, N.Y. (1941). In the photo above, workers hand-excavate pits for new concrete piers in order to “underpin” the mansion’s exterior walls (portions of the existing stone foundation were removed to sink the pits below the existing façade). The photo was taken at northwest corner of the White House.

Underpinning the Façade

Here, concrete is being poured into a hand-excavated pit. Pits were dug anywhere from 24 to 27 feet below grade down to gravel soils; clay soils closer to grade contributed to the settling of the original interior foundations.

Underpinning the Façade

A “T”-shaped structural steel support is installed on top of a cured “underpinning” pier, then …

Underpinning the Façade

… later formed out and filled with concrete. The “T”-shaped concrete pours allowed access to the interior to remove earth. The process was repeated and the existing stone foundation was gradually removed. The access holes were later infilled with concrete.

Underpinning the Façade

National Park Service photographer Abbie Rowe (shown here) photographs progress completing the underpinning east of South Portico of the White House. Work crews would pour 126 new concrete piers to support the building’s historic masonry façade. The underpinning was completed by the end of June 1950.

Dismantling the Interior

The dismantling of the White House coincided with the underpinning of its exterior walls. Here, dismantled items are labeled and catalogued in the East Room (the salvaged pieces would later be stored off-site). According to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, writing for The New York Times: “The historian in Truman consoled himself with the expectation that after the gut renovation, much of the original mansion — paneled walls, hardwood floors, ceiling fixtures and other decorations — could be grafted onto the new steel skeleton so that the White House would remain authentically historic … but as with many home improvement ventures, harsh economics soon collided with Truman’s grandest hopes.”

Salvaging Ornamental Plaster

Plasterers cut ornamental plaster from the East Room ceiling. The salvaged plaster flatwork samples were used to make molds for replacement pieces. Large decorative moldings, such as ceiling medallions and cornices, were similarly salvaged and re-created as needed.

Dismantling Transitions to Demolition

Workmen remove limestone steps from the main stairway of the White House. To accommodate increasing project costs and time constraints, most of interior finishes ended up being copies of the originals. By mid-February 1950, the dismantling of the White House was complete and demolition was well underway.

Gutting the Interior

During the demolition phase of the project, construction debris was sent to nearby Fort Myer in Alexandria, Va., to avoid profiteering off the scrap material. A government-run program was established to sell off the discarded material as souvenirs, albeit most of the rubble was secretly sent to a landfill. Here, existing wood columns were stabilized with temporary cross-bracing while second-floor floor framing is demolished (left). Two workmen stand in what remains of the second floor Oval Study (right) above the “troublesome” Blue Room (a chandelier in the Blue Room threatened to crash down on first lady Bess Truman as she entertained guests in 1947).

Gutting the Interior

A bulldozer — taken apart, then reassembled in the interior shell to avoid cutting into the building’s historical façade — removes debris from the inside of the White House. Demolition work began in February 1950 and was complete by June 20, 1950. Days later, the Korean War would begin, which would lead to project cost overruns and schedule delays due to rising material and labor costs.

Balancing a Stone House in the Sky

Here, earth-moving equipment digs a new basement within the building’s shell. By mid-1950, the White House interior was hollow and measured 165 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 80 feet high (roughly 1.1 million cubic feet of open space was created as a result). Project architect Douglas W. Orr noted in his jobsite chronology (published in “Report of the Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion," 1952), “August 16, 1950: Excavation of basement and footings completed” and “September 14, 1950: “Due to delays, project schedule revised and general contractor’s completion date set as December 1, 1951 instead of September 26, 1951.”

Steel Superstructure

Within the remaining exterior shell, a steel frame was built above a new labyrinthine basement (which included a secretive fallout center). According to Michael Beschloss regarding whether to tear down and build a new executive mansion, “As one of the most voracious readers of history ever to serve as president, Truman recoiled from that prospect. He also felt that witnessing the old White House being torn to the ground would wound Americans’ psyches. He instead approved a plan to shore up the outer walls, tear out everything inside and install a new internal steel superstructure (‘of skyscraper strength,’ The Washington Evening Star said) above a large, new, poured-concrete basement."

Here, a worker dwarfed by the massive steel columns and beam connection plates inspects the new elevator well in the sub-basement of the White House (left). Rubber-tired buggies are being used by workmen in transporting concrete from the mixer to the southeast corner of the ground floor (right). The first piece of “permanent” steel was placed on February 14, 1950, with the steel superstructure being completed on November 29, 1950.

Interior Fit Out

The new ornamental plaster ceiling and wall furring installed in the first-floor East Room. Carpenters work around stacks of lumber destined to become new floorboards.

Finish Plaster, Labor Strikes

Plasterers on scaffolding shape plaster cornice work on west wall of the second-floor Family Dining Room. Labor strikes were common during Truman’s Post-World War II presidency. In Summer 1951, a strike at a plant furnishing hollow metal delayed work on the project as well as a strike by union plasterers on August 3, 1951. Project architect Douglas Orr noted, “on September 6, 1951 the plasterers strike was settled and plastering continuing … cumulative delay indicate completion date beyond January 15, 1952.” By September 21, 1951, the lath and plaster work was mostly complete.

Thermal Envelope

Workmen mechanically fasten cork insulation on the ceiling of the third-floor center hall.

Air Conditioning

Photographer Abbie Rowe staged workmen inside ductwork to illustrate the size of the massive HVAC system being installed in the new basement. Prior to the Truman Renovation, White House operations were significantly reduced during summer months as people fled from the heat and humidity of Washington, D.C., for more hospitable climates. Air conditioning allowed the White House to operate year-round without regard for summer heat.

Subfloor Prep

In preparation of laying strip subflooring in the first-floor Red Room, carpenters set wooden blocks in tar over the new concrete deck.

Wood Flooring, Project Delays

Floor layers install white oak flooring in the first-floor State Dining Room. The installation of the wood flooring particularly vexed the project managers. Architect Douglas Orr would note from late September 1951 to February 1952 in his jobsite chronology: September 21, 1951, “Much concern about delays in installation of wood flooring and structural glass”; November 19, 1951, “Very unsatisfactory progress of installation of wood flooring”; December 6, 1951, “Wood flooring installation still unsatisfactory”; December 20, 1951. “Shortage of skilled floor layers” and February 5, 1952, “Completion date hinges on flooring and interior millwork.”


On March 27, 1952, President Truman and first lady Bess Truman arrived at the White House to reoccupy the building. The scope of work, costs, and historical authenticity of the renovation work were controversial at the time. Cost escalations due to labor shortages and wartime inflation caused a cost overrun of $321,000 ($3.1 million today), bringing the total cost of the project to $5.7 million (roughly $57 million adjusted for inflation).

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