Harry Truman didn’t want the job of vice president or president, and he sometimes called the White House “the great white jail.” He had only so much patience for the trappings of the presidency.
Nonetheless it fell to Truman to do something about the dilapidated White House building itself, ordering a complete renovation that took nearly three and a half years, preserving a powerful symbol of the country.
“They gutted the whole house entirely. They had to take it down to the … walls,” said Clifton Truman Daniel, eldest grandson of Harry and Bess Truman. He spoke Wednesday evening at the Truman Library in Independence, highlighting the library’s current special exhibit, “Saving the White House: Truman’s Extreme Makeover.”
Daniel, an author and journalist who says many of his efforts are focused on preserving and expanding the Truman legacy, said he spent some time studying the history of the building and its modifications through the years. He walked through some of that history Wednesday evening.
The White House was built at the turn of the 19th century. The British burned it in 1814, during the War of 1812.
“All they had was the walls. That was it. Everything else was ash,” Daniel said.
In a rush to rebuild – it was reopened in 1817 – builders used a lot of wood and inferior brick. Other improvements over the years – gas, plumbing – added to the burdens on the structure.
It was President Teddy Roosevelt whose improvements early in the 20th century would prove most troublesome years later. He added the West Wing but also took out a grand staircase – and a load-bearing wall. Then Calvin Coolidge turned the attic into the third floor, adding steel and concrete and putting more stress on the structure.
“I always thought of it as an ice-cream cake that’s melting,” Daniel said.
After Truman became president at the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt came to the Trumans to apologize about the state of the White House, the living quarters in particular.
“The curtains were frayed. The carpets were worn down,” Daniel said.
Oh, and the rats, Mrs. Roosevelt added.
In the Roosevelts’ defense, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression or at war every day FDR was in office, so the state of the White House itself wasn’t the highest priority.
The Trumans moved in and joked about the ghosts in the White House – the random creaks and bumps of a deteriorating building.
The story that got everyone’s attention involved Daniel’s mother, Margaret Truman, the daughter of Bess and Harry. One day, the leg of her piano went through a floor and through the ceiling of the living quarters.
“The floor just kind of caved in under the weight of the piano,” Daniel said.
Truman got Congress to OK the money for a major renovation, and the family moved out – to the Blair House, traditionally the home of vice presidents – shortly after he won a full term as president in 1948.
“He had to move out almost from the minute we won the election in ‘48,” Daniel said.
Truman paid close attention to the project.
“He took a great deal of interest in this,” Daniel said. “He talked to the archivists. He talked to the builders.”
Builders wanted to take out parts of the exterior walls – the only original part preserved – to get in big equipment.
“And Grandpa wouldn’t let them do that,” Daniel said. They had to make do at first by disassembling big equipment to get inside. Later, they got under those walls while adding the various sub-basements.
The Trumans moved back into the White House in March 1952, with less than a year to go in Truman’s second term. Truman LIbrary Director Kurt Graham noted that some president eventually would have to have had the work done, but said it’s still noteworthy that Truman – the first modern president in many respects – is the one who did it.
The evening at the Truman Library was full of light moments, and the full house in the library auditorium laughed and applauded repeatedly.
One question brought the house down: What would Truman think of President Trump?
Daniel, who has devoted much of his life to the work of reconciliation, started with, “I would just generally say we should be talking to each other.”
That brought applause.
“Needless to say,” he added, “I don’t think President Truman and President Trump line up very much, publicly or privately.”
Former Independence Mayor Barbara Potts was at the event, and she pointed out that she was in office when Bess Truman died in 1982, leaving the Truman Home on Delaware Street to the American people.
One problem: The National Park Service said it didn’t have the money to run it and maintain it. The mayor enlisted the help of members of Congress and others, such as the Truman family, to change the Park Service’s mind.
Today of course the home is open to Park Service tours and has tens of thousands of visitors annually.
“And I just want to thank them and your family,” Potts said to Daniel, “for leaving this legacy to the people of the United States.”