Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

The White House Revealed:
Photos of the White House Renovation by Abbie Rowe

A unique collection of photographs of the White House that was displayed at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library from June 15th, 2001 through April 30, 2002.

The White House Revealed: Photos of the White House Renovation by Abbie Rowe features more than 70 of his black and white photographs. The exhibition opens with an overview of Rowe's career and includes examples of photographs he took of presidential activities over 25 years from the administration of Franklin Roosevelt to that of Lyndon Johnson.

Images include the somber ceremony in April 1945 when Harry Truman was sworn into office following the death of Roosevelt, the Oval Office crowded with reporters as Truman announces the surrender of Japan to end World War II, President Eisenhower celebrating the beginning of his Presidency at his Inaugural ball in 1953, the funeral procession for President Kennedy in November 1963, and President Lyndon Johnson striding from the White House with several assistants.

The core of the exhibition focuses on the photographs Abbie Rowe took of the renovation of the White House from 1949 to 1952.


Accompanying these photographs are artifacts from the Truman Presidential Museum and Library collections that are associated with the renovation. Among these objects are original wooden structural beams removed from beneath the second floor and replaced with steel, pieces of a fireplace mantel removed from the State Dining Room, and a number of pieces of White House material - bricks, wood, nails, and stone - that were removed during the renovation and packaged for sale to the general public as souvenirs. Also on display are a set of White House china and a Baldwin concert grand piano, both created for the White House as symbols of the completion of the renovation.

The exhibition also includes a video program featuring the first televised tour of the White House. In May 1952 three television networks collaborated to produce a live broadcast of a guided tour of the White House led by President Truman. In the tour the President shows off the new look of the Executive Mansion, stopping briefly in the East Room to play a tune on one of the two pianos there.

The White House Is Falling Down: Some said the White House was standing only from the "force of habit".

Shortly after moving into the White House, President Truman noticed the telltale signs of a building under serious physical stress. He frequently complained of drafts and unusual popping and creaking noises in the old house. In letters to his wife Bess, back home in Missouri, Truman often joked of the "ghosts" that inhabited the White House.

"The damned place is haunted, sure as shootin. . . . You and Margie had better come back and protect me before some of these ghosts carry me off." ~Harry Truman, in a letter to his wife Bess, September 8, 1946

"The floors pop and the drapes move back and forth. I can just imagine old Andy and Teddy having an argument over Franklin," he wrote to her in June 1945.

Early in 1948, in response to the President's concerns, engineering reports confirmed that the White House was in a serious state. Burned to the exterior walls in 1814, further compromised by the successive additions of indoor plumbing, gas lighting, electric wiring, heating ducts, and major modifications in 1902 and 1927, some said the White House was standing only from the force of habit. The decision was made to move the Trumans across the street into the Blair House for three years while the White House underwent a complete reconstruction within its original exterior walls.

It would fall to Abbie Rowe to keep the complete photographic record of the renovation of the White House, a project to which he devoted a major part of his time and talent between 1948 and 1952. In the process he produced hundreds of detailed black and white photographs to document almost every aspect of the work that transformed the White House to meet the complexity of the modern presidency while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original James Hoban design. One aspect of Abbie Rowe's photographic duties is unique among those photographers who covered the Presidency. From 1949 to 1952, he served as the official photographer for the renovation of the White House.

Beginning with a nearly complete photographic record of the White House interior as it appeared before the project began, he went on to capture on film the systematic dismantling of the interior of the building. His historic photos show workmen and machines as they removed and stored interior flooring, wood molding, and other architectural features before removing all remaining interior structures to leave only the exterior stone walls standing.

It was an engineering marvel. In December 1949 crews began dismantling interior rooms, saving much of the wood trim, doors, hardware, and other visible details for possible future use. At the same time other crews poured 126 new reinforced concrete support columns to a depth of 25 feet to provide solid support for the exterior walls. This would eventually provide space for two new sub-basement levels beneath the White House.

By March 1950 the wholesale demolition of the interior was well underway, leaving only a web of temporary steel supports to hold the exterior walls in place. By autumn, the White House was just a cavernous hollow space, 165 feet long, 85 feet wide, and 70 to 80 feet high. His photographs captured not only the work in progress, but also the technological challenge of keeping the fragile walls standing while the interior was carved away and rebuilt. Visiting the construction site, at times almost daily, his photographs not only tracked the progress of the work, but also tried to capture the architectural forms of the building in attractive ways. Using backlighting to illuminate the dark cavernous spaces of the gutted structure, Rowe gave a sense of depth and beauty to the crumbling piles of stone, mortar, timber, and brick. He captured the drama of the interior space as floors were removed to reveal levels above and below. And he was careful to include the faces of workmen to give scale and a human personality to the structure -- as if to say that the workmen who labored on the building were toiling at a labor of love to give the nation's home new life and strength.

Then, as the White House was rebuilt on a new framework of structural steel, Rowe created a visual record of the reconstruction, capturing the installation of wiring, plumbing, interior walls and finishing details.

In a little more than 15 months - from November 1950 when the weight of the empty exterior shell of the White House was transferred to a new skeleton of steel - a new White House was constructed within the walls of the original. First to appear was the new steel framework that would support all the interior rooms. Wiring, plumbing, ductwork, and other utilities began to snake their way through the structure as concrete floor slabs and then interior walls began to take shape.

By the summer of 1951 most interior partitions were complete, with at least a rough coat of plaster on them. Service areas were modern and functional, bearing no visible similarity to their historical counterparts. But the public spaces and family quarters were generally rebuilt to resemble the original rooms. Most of the material salvaged during the dismantling of the house was not reused as had originally been intended. Instead, replicas of wood and plaster trim and other architectural details were substituted, although many original lighting fixtures and other finishing ornaments were returned to the house after being restored. Work proceeded at a rapid pace six days a week. In February 1952 furniture began arriving as workers finished sanding floors, painting walls, and installing tile.

All this was taken in by the camera lens of Abbie Rowe. Intricate webs of steel girders, piles of stone and brick, miles of conduit and wiring, enormous ventilation ducts, and many other construction materials became the subject of his photographs. As skilled craftsmen molded the raw materials into finished floors, walls, and ceilings, Rowe captured on film the contributions of the various construction trades. And, to add scale and a human personality, he was careful to include the faces of workers in many of his photographs. Their expressions often exposed their pride in contributing to the rebuilding of the White House.

Fit for Another Century On the evening of March 27, 1952, in a small ceremony at the entrance door, President Truman received a gold key to the newly-renovated White House. After spending more than three years living in the smaller quarters of the Blair House a block to the North, the first family returned to the mansion for their first night back in residence. It was both the same home they had left three years earlier and a new and larger home as well. Its original 48 rooms had expanded to 54, not including two entirely new sub-basement levels containing service areas and other support facilities.

Where once the White House had nearly collapsed from its structural deficiencies, now 660 tons of steel strengthened the new concrete inner walls and floors. Although retaining much of its historical appearance, the interior of the house now sparkled with new paint, wall coverings, parquet flooring and tile. At a cost of $5.7 million, the White House had been rebuilt to serve the needs of the modern Presidency while retaining the symbolism as the historic home of the President.

As a conclusion to his photographic record of the White House renovation, Abbie Rowe toured the completed mansion in the Spring of 1952, shooting pictures of its gleaming new interior rooms. While the views are similar, these photographs stand in sharp contrast to those he took in 1947 and 1948 showing the wear and tear the mansion had endured over many years of hard use by Presidential families, administration officials, and the general public. These new photographs reveal a showcase home that stands ready to meet the challenges of another century of service as a home of Presidents and a symbol of the nation.