White House: Past, Present & How to Visit
Updated: Aug 6
Location: Washington, D.C.
Overview: Home of the Presidents
The White House is the residence of one of the most powerful people in the world and a beacon of military power. Thus, the White House is a crucial stop on a visit to Washington, D.C. With over 18 acres of land, the White House grounds are an energizing location at the zenith of political power in the United States.
The White House has been the home of every President of the United States except for George Washington, the first President. In the two terms of Washington’s command of the United States government, there was a revolving door of presidential house changes. This included a string of movements of the capital from New York City to Philadelphia to Washington DC.
Construction took over 8 years to complete and was built by African-American slaves and new immigrants. The first incarnation of the building was completed in 1800 along with the construction of the capital district. It was almost destroyed by British fire during the War of 1812.
In the distant past, the White House was utilized as an open place for members of the public to visit and meet with the President freely. It was even the location of a rowdy party with 20,000 attendees after the inauguration of Andrew Jackson.
The President’s house has been continuously updated and renovated since its' first construction. Tthe addition of new wings, security features, and new designs have allowed to to grow and meet modern needs. Covering a staggering 132 rooms and 6 floors, the White House is one of the largest residences in the United States. The West Wing was constructed in 1901. In 1909, the Oval Office, the office of the President, was added to the White House.
After the Bay of Pigs Invasion, John F. Kennedy led the creation of the Situation Room. This room became the primary intelligence briefing location with state-of-the-art technology. One famous piece of new machinery added during this expansion was the hotline. This hotline provided secure and direct access to the Kremlin in Moscow during the Cold War and is still active today.
The White House address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is one of the most well-known in the world. The building is one of the most recognizable structures in the world. It is on the register of National Historic Sites and managed by the National Parks Service. In 2007, the American Institute of Architects designated the White House as America’s second favorite structure.
The White House and Oval Office have become a metonymy for the President and the executive branch of the United States government. The building is still available to tours in modern times. It is however subject to heavy restrictions and safety protocols. In addition to the White House, the executive branch complex includes the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and Blair House. The latter of which a guest house for visiting dignitaries.
The Destination: Home & Office
The White House is the home of the President and the First Family. However, it is not home, but also a workplace for over 1,700 staff members and government officials. To host this large array of cohabitants, the White House must be able to handle the foot traffic. Through various eras of expansion, the now 55,000-square-foot mansion has become a substantial operation.
The East Wing, West Wing, and Executive Residence compose the White House. Office space for the First Lady and other government officials is housed in the East Wing. Whereas, the West Wing contains the office of the President as well as secure meeting rooms for any occasion. The White House is the location for a wide variety of formal events and gatherings, not to mention press briefings.
Some of the most well-known rooms of the White House are areas seen by the public during press briefings. Generally, on days of fair weather press briefings are outside in the Rose Garden. In times of ill weather, the Briefing Room is where the press broadcasts the Presidents’ announcements to the American public.
The Oval Office is the ceremonial office space for the President and a significant icon of the building. This room in the West Wing hosts a wide range of events from cabinet meetings and bill signings to dignitary and special guest visits. Televised speeches from the Oval Office are paramount in the American mind surrounding tragic events. The President's desk is almost as famous as the room itself. Named the Resolute Desk, it was a gift from Queen Victoria after the return of the HMS Resolute which became trapped in the Arctic. Sitting behind the Resolute Desk, Presidents have provided assurances to the American people in eras of distress. Adjacent to the Oval Office is a private study where the president works.
Beneath the West Wing is a multistory basement facility for the President’s security. This basement features an underground bunker in case of an attack on Washington, DC. The Situation Room is also located in the subterranean floors of the White House. This room acts as a covert conference space dealing with issues of national security.
Centrally located between the two wings is the executive residence. This segment of the White House is the most historic with ostentatious parlors, dining rooms, bedrooms, and halls. This area houses the First Family’s living quarters which serve as their home and personal space.
Security is of the utmost importance to this piece of American History. The first family has a private kitchen staff and full-time chefs that cook their meals. Food served at the White House is copiously screened for tampering before it arrives. The circulated air in the building is not only heavily filtered but is also kept slightly pressurized to expel any toxins.
The White House of today is elaborately decorated with qualities of a museum. Therefore, it is a difficult place for the first family to feel comfortable. Members of the first family in previous administrations talk of the immense security presence around at all times. With primary issues surrounding the difficulty of calling this historical building “home.”
Even with the maximum security features installed in the White House, it is still possible for visitors to gain entry via a guided tour. The White House is currently the only residence of the head of state to be open to the public in the world.
Visiting the White House is a task you can fulfill on a whim; it takes conscientious planning. Citizens of the United States must submit a request form to one of their representatives in Congress. These request forms must be sent before three weeks of your intended tour date. Non-citizens of the United States must contact their embassy in Washington, D.C. for the tour request form.
Furthermore, tours are only offered from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Spaces on the tour are distributed out on a first-come-first-served basis. Additionally, all tours are free for both citizen and non-citizen visitors. The check-in area for the tour can be found near the East Wing.
On the tour, no video recording or flash photography is allowed. To enter the building, you must show a government-issued photo Identification. It is also recommended that you bring as little as possible so that the security process is performed swiftly.
Security for any visitors gaining access to the White House is rigorous. Guests must pass through metal detectors as well as radiological devices. An instance has been recorded in which a visitor who was undergoing radiation therapy was flagged by the Secret Service. so that is something to consider if you are in the same situation.
The White House tour includes public areas of the East Wing and Executive Residence. Some of the rooms included in the tour are the Blue Room, Red Room and Green Room as well as the State Dining Room and the China Room. Visitors also get a view of the White House Rose Garden. According to the Washington D.C. government website, “Secret Service members are stationed in each room and are available to answer questions about the history and architecture of each room.”
Another important note is that there are no restroom facilities for the public inside the White House. If you must use the restroom before or after the tour, there are some in the Ellipse Visitor Pavillion south of the White House.
If you are unable to secure a spot on the tour or do not want to go through the hassle of contacting your representative, it is still remarkable to view the structure from the outside. The streets surrounding the White House are inaccessable to traffic and pedestrians. It is impossible to get close to the White House without proper clearance. But, the slatted gates encircle the restricted area which allows for photography and admiration of the building.
An accompaniment to the White House tour is the White House Visitor Center. The Center is located in the Department of Commerce Building on the eastern side of The Ellipse park. You can enjoy the visitors center even if you do not have a White House tour scheduled. The visitors center contains a scale replica of the White House along with hundreds of artifacts from the building’s history. Museum exhibits show the storied past of the executive mansion. An example of these exhibits is the Teddy Roosevelt Desk used by presidents before the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.
Along with the other national monuments in the area, the White House is beautifully lit at night. The illustrious white paint shines bright in the night. It is also lit up in various colors to mark memorials to significant events. In June 2015 after the Supreme Court legalized marriage equality across the country, the White House came alive in a rainbow glow. And in celebration of breast cancer awareness, the White House shined a pink hue.
Since the White House is centrally located in Washington, D.C., I recommend using the Metro to arrive at your destination. Many surrounding streets are cordoned off or are high traffic areas.
You can find a full list of information on the White House Tour and how you can schedule a visit on the White House Website:
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500