Why is the White House where it is? How did the President of the United States come to dwell within the District of Columbia, just north of the Potomac River? Where did the city of Washington get its name? When did all that take place?

A Brief History of Washington, DC

When George Washington took his first seat of office in 1789, being sworn in as the first American president at Federal Hall in New York City, the Nation’s Capital was held within the city of New York, but shortly thereafter moved to the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. So, when reelected in 1792, President Washington was seated in Philadelphia. Around this time the Nation felt that a more central location for the Nation’s Capital would be appropriate. While still in his first term, George Washington designated the Washington, DC area as home for the future capital of our Nation in 1790. Through the signing of the Residence Act on July 16, 1790, the states of Maryland and Virginia each donated land to form the federal district. This federal district was to be under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Congress and thus is not a part of any state. The City of Washington was then formally founded in 1791 to serve as the new national capital of this young republic. It was named by the three commissioners overseeing the development of the city as the city of Washington, after the Nation’s first president.

It was decided that this area now known as Washington, DC, would be the new home of our Nation over a dinner party deal later known as the Residence Act. In thanks to the Revolutionary War the states had taken on some heavy debt of $25 million, not as heavy as we have today. To solve this debt issue, Alexander Hamilton, proposed that the Nation take it on and help to encourage business, investment, and trade to work to pay it off. This would relieve many states of the debt, but those states that were currently debt free were opposed to this plan. To tell the story read below from the Constitution Center blog.

The story of how this conflict was resolved is part history and part legend. Historian Joseph Ellis recounts it beautifully in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers. In a chapter called “The Dinner,” Ellis describes the political interests that brought Hamilton and Madison together at a dinner party hosted by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

There, according to the only account, provided by Jefferson, three American icons came to an agreement for the ages: Madison would stand down and let Hamilton’s financial plan pass or fail without a strenuous effort to block it. In return, Hamilton would use his influence to pass a bill that would find a permanent home for the nation’s capital along the Potomac River, bordered by Virginia and Maryland.

Thus, a simple dinner party thwarted a major financial crisis (Hamilton’s plan proved to be a great success) and paved the way for what would become Washington, D.C. So what might a round of golf accomplish? We may never know for sure, but Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson would certainly approve.

The City of Washington was then formally founded in 1791 to serve as the new national capital of this young republic. It was named by the three commissioners overseeing the development of the city as the city of Washington, after the Nation’s first president.

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View more on Washington DC and Eric’s art of the Nation’s Capital

President Washington commissioned French architect, Charles L’Enfant to lay out the city. The central element of his design was the capital building. This building would stand on a hill that overlooked the surrounding flatlands of the Potomac. Off of the capitol building would run a grand mall with stately buildings along the outside. Also, broad avenues parted from this central hub. One of which, Pennsylvania Avenue, would connect the capitol building with the home of the President. Today, we see the fulfillment of his grand plan, but it wasn’t until 1901 that the plan was fully seen and worked towards execution.

The White House

Selected by George Washington as the site for the home of the President of the United States the White House has changed over the years, but has remained in the same location since 1792. Under the direction of Irish-American architect, James Hoban, whose competition design was selected, work began on the iconic building known today as the White House. Located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue this mansion home stands as the home to every president since John Adams. It includes two main wings off to the west and the east. The central section of the White House stands as the residence of the President of the United States and his family. The West Wing is designated for the President and his staff while the East Wing is then reserved for the First Lady and her staff, the correspondence staff, and White House Social Secretary.

“I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise men ever rule under this roof!”

– John Adams, 2nd President of the United States of America

On this day, 13 October, in 1792 the cornerstone was laid and work began on the future home of the President of the United States. This stately mansion is now the oldest federal building within the District of Columbia, but not without some trial. Below is a brief historical timeline of the White House.

  • 13 October 1792 – Cornerstone Laid.
  • 1 November 1800 – President John Adams and First Lady, Abigail, were welcomed into their new home, stating, “I pray heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise men ever rule under this roof!”
  • 1805 – The first inaugural open house was held by Thomas Jefferson.
  • 24 August 1814 – The White House was burned down by the British amidst the War of 1812. James Hoban was then brought back to reconstruct it.
  • 1917 – James & Dolley Madison enter a newly renovated White House and decorate with French furniture and decor.
  • 1824 – South Portico was constructed under the direction of James Monroe’s administration.
  • 1829 – North Portico was constructed under the direction of Andrew Jackson’s administration. Each of these Porticos had been planned in the original designs but were held off for one reason or another.
  • 1878 – First White House Easter Egg Roll – one of the oldest and most unique traditions in presidential history to be held the Monday after Easter traditionally on Capitol Hill, but now on the South Lawn of the White House.
  • 1902 – West Wing was constructed.
  • 1909 – President Taft commissions architect Nathan Wyeth to expand the executive wing, resulting in the creation of the Oval Office.
  • 1913 – The Ellen Wilson’s Rose Garden was added.
  • 1942 – East Wing as it is today was constructed.
  • 1949-1952 – The Truman Reconstruction. Under the direction of Harry S. Truman, the White House needed some serious renovations due to wartime destruction, hurried repairs, and upgraded technologies. The White House was then gutted, rebuilt, and a third level was added.
  • 1979 June – First solar panels installed on the roof of the White House under the direction of Jimmy Carter, later removed by Reagan in 1986.
  • 1992 – Internet was installed into the White House.
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See Eric’s painting of the White House Easter Egg Roll

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