A Brief History
On October 13, 1792, the cornerstone for the White House was laid in the capital city of the United States, known as Washington, D.C. (the city of Washington within the District of Columbia). While commonly referred to as “The White House” (because it is white?), the real name of the presidential residence is the United States Executive Mansion. A well known residence throughout the world, in the US the “White House” is a term often used synonymously with “the President” or “the Administration.” Around the world there are similar iconic residences of national leaders, and today we discuss 7 of the most notable or well known. Question for students: Which executive mansions, palaces, castles or homes would you add to the list? (Note: Some of the listed residences are no longer used as the residence of the current national leader.)
1. White House, Washington, D.C., United States.
Its 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. address is probably second only to #10 Downing Street in world wide fame, as this mansion built between 1792 and 1800 has housed the “most powerful person on Earth” since the ascendancy of the United States after World War II. Home to almost all of our presidents, Harry S Truman had to reside at Blair House from 1849-1951 while much overdo renovations took place. (costing almost $6 million, the renovations included installing steel beam frame members, a bomb shelter, and 2 additional sub-basements.) The War of 1812 was not kind to the new mansion, as the British burned the building along with much of Washington, D.C. in 1814, forcing President Madison to live elsewhere from 1814 until the end of his term. Obviously, renovations had to take place after the 1814 fire, and over the years new sections have been added, and lesser renovations have taken place. As the White House is not only the residence of the President and his family, with the President’s office and other administrative work places also housed there, certain security measures have been built in to keep the First Family and government functions safe. These measures include a fence around the grounds and anti-vehicle barriers to prevent vehicles from plowing into the grounds. Anti-aircraft missiles are stationed at the White House and the house and grounds are patrolled by US Park Police and the Secret Service. White House windows have been discretely replaced with bulletproof glass. Declared a National Museum in 1961, the White House is open for public tours (and has been open to the public for most of its existence) and its furnishings may be declared by the President to be National Artifacts. White House statistics include 55,000 square feet of floor space and 6 floors, with 35 bathrooms as well as a bowling alley and a tennis court. About 30,000 people per week visit the White House. The original exterior was made of sandstone covered with a white “paint” of a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and lead.
2. #10 Downing Street, Westminster, London, United Kingdom.
You may think of this most famous of street addresses as the home of the British Prime Minister, but the residence was originally purchased to be the residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. It so happens that the Prime Minister has also usually held that particular title as well as Prime Minister since the 1700’s, and has always had the dual titles since 1905. The 100 room Georgian mansion has real history, being over 300 years old, completed in 1684! #10 was originally 3 houses that over the years have been joined as one and was a gift by King George II to the then First Lord of the Treasury, Sir Robert Walpole. Walpole only agreed to the gift as a gift to the First Lord of the Treasury rather than as a gift to himself, starting the long tradition of #10 as the residence of the First Lord of the Treasury. In its early years several Prime Ministers chose not to live in the large, hard to maintain house, and at times demolition was considered. Like the White House, several government offices are also kept at #10. Located in the Westminster heart of London, 310 is adjacent to Parliament and Buckingham Palace, a convenient location.
3. Buckingham Palace, Westminster, London, United Kingdom.
The official residence of the British Monarch and the headquarters for the Crown, the Palace was originally a private residence built by the Duke of Buckingham in 1703. The grounds with the main house was purchased by King George III for his wife, Queen Charlotte, in 1761, getting the name “Queen’s House.” Renovations started almost immediately. The Palace was enlarged in the 19th Century and in 1837 Queen Victoria made it the official residence and headquarters of the British Crown. With a whopping 775 rooms, the Palace is used for a variety of meetings and entertainments and is open to the public. The grounds boast a large (40 acre) and magnificent garden. The Palace was unscathed during World War I, but suffered a single bomb strike during World War II.
4. Palace of Versailles, Île-de-France, France.
From 1682 to 1789 the Palace of Versailles was the residence of the monarch of France and the epitome of royal excess. First the home of Louis XIV, by the time of the French Revolution in 1789 the occupants, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, had become reviled symbols of oppression of the hungry masses while they lived in opulent luxury. Located about a dozen miles from downtown Paris, the Palace is renowned for its glittering Hall of Mirrors, bejeweled Royal Opera, and magnificent grounds, fountains and gardens. Lovingly restored, this former symbol of oppression now belongs to all French citizens as a public park and museum, and gets over 7.7 million visitors per year, second only to the Louvre as a Parisian tourist attraction. The site was originally a small village, purchased by King Louis XIII where he built a hunting lodge in 1623-1624. Louis XIII then converted the lodge into a chateau several years later, and his son, Louis XIV rebuilt the site as his palace after his marriage in 1660. Building and expanding continued, and the features kept coming as well, including installation of a zoo for exotic animals! Several thousand officials and courtiers worked at Versailles for the King. King Louis XV assumed the throne on the death of his father in 1715, but only 5 years old at the time lived in Paris under a regency. Louis XV moved to Versailles as his main residence in 1722, and continued adding buildings, rooms, and opulence to the complex. The unfortunate King Louis XVI reigned during a period of financial reverses, precluding him from major additions to the Palace, but he and his bride, Marie Antoinette, managed to remodel many of the interior rooms in high style. In a fascinating bit of irony, part of the complex was made up as a peasant hamlet for Queen Marie Antoinette and her pals to play at being peasants! When the royal family was ousted in 1792, the revolutionary government ordered all works of art at Versailles to be moved to the Louvre, while the rest of the furnishings were sold at auction to refill government coffers. Subsequent French monarchs, starting with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I decided to forgo using Versailles as a residence because of the bad appearance such a move would give. Some renovations did take place, and certain ceremonial events were held there throughout the ensuing decades.
5. Grand Kremlin Palace, Moscow, Russia.
Kremlin in Russian means fortress or citadel, and there are of course many places in Russia called a “Kremlin.” The place we think of when we hear the word is the big one in Moscow, which was adapted as the Moscow residence of the Czar and the center of Russian, and then Soviet, government. First referred to in 1331, serious building started around 1366 with the replacing of timber walls with walls of limestone. During the 15th Century reign of Grand Prince Ivan III more ambitious building took place, with top notch architects from around Europe contracted to build impressive churches, buildings, and towers. Russian rulers used the Kremlin Palace as their residence until Peter the Great moved the national capital to St. Petersburg in 1713. The Kremlin once again became the center of Russian royalty in 1773 with the ascension of Catherine the Great who had the complex renovated. Napoleon’s French invasion in 1812 saw a failed attempt to destroy the complex, though the French did manage to blow up some of the buildings and walls. Later when the Soviet Union was established, Lenin and then Stalin chose to make the Kremlin their own residence. (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?”) The complex remains the center of Russian rulers (home of the President), with 20 towers, 4 cathedrals, and 5 palaces among its structures. The complex covers about 28 hectares and receives about 2.8 million visitors per year.
6. Tokyo Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan.
In 1868 the Japanese Emperor moved his residence from Kyoto to the site of Edo Castle, formerly the residence of a Shogun. The Emperor renamed it Tōkei Castle only to rename it Imperial Castle a year later. After a fire destroyed the building, a new Imperial residence was built in 1888, named Palace Castle. Much of the complex was destroyed by American bombing in May of 1945, and a new Palace complex was built on the site during the 1960’s, gaining the new name Imperial Residence. The new Imperial Palace is more modest than the old style, and various other buildings on the grounds are used for ceremonial purposes. Part of the grounds are maintained as a public park. Part of the surrender agreement at the end of World War II was the removal of any divinity of the Emperor of Japan, though the Emperor was permitted to remain. Under the new democratic constitutional government imposed after World War II, the Emperor has become an anachronistic ceremonial post without the gravitas the office once held.
7. ʻIolani Palace, Honolulu, Hawaii.
The only state capital to house a royal palace, Honolulu is home to the official residence of the King or Queen of Hawaii from 1845 until Americans took over the islands in 1893. The Palace was used as the Capitol Building of Hawaii until 1969, and in 1978 became a museum. First occupied by King Kamehameha III in 1845, the last royal resident was Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 who was ousted in a coup by mostly American residents of Hawaii that created the Republic of Hawaii until the islands were annexed by the US in 1898. The current Palace was built in 1879 on the site of the previous palace that was razed to make way for the new Palace. Situated on 10.6 acres, the Palace is a stone and concrete structure 140 feet by 100 feet and rises 2 stories above a raised basement. Towers rise 76 feet high. The Palace is architecturally unique, of the American Florentine Style, and is nothing like any other building, featuring European, American and Hawaiian touches. Native Hawaiians seized the Palace in 2008 to protest what they believe is the illegal US occupation of Hawaii. The insurrection failed and Hawaii remains part of the United States, but now with increased security at ʻIolani Palace.
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For more information, please see…
Klara, Robert. The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014.
Merridale, Catherine. Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin. Metropolitan Books, 2013.
The featured image in this list, an aerial view of the White House complex, from north, by Carol M. Highsmith from 30 April 2007, is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID highsm.04919. This work is from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive collection at the Library of Congress. According to the library, there are no known copyright restrictions on the use of this work. Carol M. Highsmith has stipulated that her photographs are in the public domain. Photographs of sculpture or other works of art may be restricted by the copyright of the artist. In the foreground is Pennsylvania Avenue, closed to traffic. Center: Executive Residence (1792–1800) with North Portico (1829) facing; left: East Wing (1942); right: West Wing (1901), with the Oval Office (1909) at its southeast corner.