“The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence” by Robert Klara. Thomas Dunne Books, 2013. $26.99, 384 pages.
It’s one of those stories so utterly ridiculous, it can’t be anything but true. It was early 1948. President Harry Truman, relaxing in a bath upstairs in the family residence of the White House, while downstairs his wife, Bess, was entertaining a group of ladies from the Daughters of the American Revolution. As she stood, fulfilling her duties as First Lady, shaking hands and greeting people, she became aware of a faint tinkling sound. The Blue Room chandelier, a massive display of crystal and bronze,
more than five feet tall and three and a half feet wide, and weighing at least twelve hundred pounds, was quivering.
Concerned, Mrs. Truman kept a wary eye on the fixture, and when the chandelier actually began swinging back and forth, she sent an usher upstairs to discover the source of the movement. But all he found was the President, enjoying his soak, completely unaware of the possibility that he might plummet through the floor into a room full of dignified ladies wearing nothing but a smile.
When the Trumans first moved into the White House in 1945, they were surprised to find that it was not the stately mansion they had expected. The house had been neglected during the Roosevelt presidency. With his priorities being the Depression and then World War II, Roosevelt hadn’t paid much attention to the upkeep of the White House.
And now, after decades of use by Presidents, First Ladies, visiting dignitaries and tourists, the house was showing its age. Despite being aware of the disrepair of the mansion, it wasn’t until the bathtub incident that the Trumans realized something was seriously wrong. The President commissioned a group to secretly conduct a survey of the condition of the house, and what they found was appalling for any home, let alone that of the Leader of the Free World.
But despite the deteriorating conditions of the home, it took Margaret Truman’s piano leg actually falling through the floor above a broken beam in 1949 for anyone to take any real action in saving the historic structure.
Over the next three years, the interior of the White House was dismantled, gutted and rebuilt completely. “The Hidden White House” recounts a fascinating and often appalling history of the renovation. Caught up in red tape, bureaucratic nonsense and budget woes, the reconstruction lagged in committees and political power plays. It seems inexcusable now that anyone would have begrudged the funds to restore such an important building in our country’s history, but Klara’s well researched account shines a light on just how close we came to losing the nation’s most famous residence.
Rebekah Scott is a reference librarian at May Memorial Public Library. Visit us on the web at www.alamancelibraries.org.