Traveling with Ken Wayand

Discover Vintage America - AUGUST 2017

Truman Library exhibit recalls White House renovation

When Harry Truman and his family moved into the White House in 1945 they were aware the historic structure had serious problems. Ceilings sagged, chandeliers rattled, floors creaked, and Harry claimed he heard "ghosts" roaming the second floor halls. Ominous shakes were felt when visitors gathered in certain parts of the building, and the sight of swaying chandeliers unnerved all who saw them. Although Bess Truman quickly devised a plan for making superficial changes, it soon became obvious that major repairs were needed.

Heavy equipment at work excavating lower level of White House, photographed by Abbie Rowe, White House photographer.

The Trumans' daughter, Margaret, loved to play the piano, but was mightily distracted when rotten boards gave way and a piano leg fell through the floor. Another near-disaster that added urgency to the renovation work might have proved to be more newsworthy. The first lady was hosting a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution downstairs while Harry was taking a bath upstairs in the West Wing. The sagging tub alarmed Harry, who was "wearing only his reading glasses," according to Daniel Bates in the London Daily Mail. Truman hurriedly finished his bath and exited the tub, saving the women a spectacular disruption to their meeting. Later, Harry often related the tale to chuckling friends. Bess was not amused.

In 1948, building inspectors, architects and engineers were called in. Their report of February 1949 concluded that the walls were staying upright only through "force of habit." One official declared the building "wouldn't pass the safety standard of any city in the country."

It was obvious the Trumans weren't safe in the White House; it would have to be rebuilt. But choices had to be made. Was renovation enough, or should the historic and dilapidated building be torn down and replaced by a new one? The Trumans favored renovating, and suggested keeping the outside walls intact but gutting the interior structure and replacing it with a safer alternative.

A writing desk made from pieces of the original White House. Scorch marks show effects of British attack in 1814. The desk was used by Truman for household bookkeeping after he left office.

How the work would be accomplished required the usual beltway red tape, including the formation of a Commission on the Renovation of the Executive Mansion. The Truman's moved into smaller quarters at Blair House while the work was being done. Major logistic and security problems loomed, but the $5.7 million renovation ($54 million in today's dollars) moved forward, gutting 66 rooms and the Oval Office. As Harry Truman said at the time, "The old building is nothing but a shell." It would be 1,222 days before Harry, Bess and Margaret could move back in.

Construction began Dec. 13, 1949. Workers in the building trade called it a "gut job," leaving a void large enough to bury the Statue of Liberty. Huge girders were used to make a steel frame to support the White House. In his book, The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence, Robert Klara described the rivets that joined the girders as being "the size of doorknobs." Interior items were numbered, catalogued and stored, with the intention of reassembling much of them later. However, a controversial decision was made to auction many items, marked with the words "Original White House Material – Removed in 1950."

Klara wrote that the renovation revealed another White House secret: rat infestation. "One especially large rodent had made an appearance at a luncheon in front of guests."

Fireplace mantle from Lincoln Room, delivered to Truman after he left office.

The renovation added a new item to the White House: an underground bunker to protect White House occupants against nuclear attack, a real concern in the early days of the Cold War. The bunker, with walls seven feet thick and a roof containing nine feet of poured concrete, was built at a cost of $881,000. With multiple rooms and supplies of food and water, the bunker was capable of protecting the president and others for weeks if necessary.

A special exhibit, "Saving the White House: Truman's Extreme Makeover," opened in March at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, MO, and continues through the end of the year. The renovation story is told through quotes, artifacts, and photographs by Abbie Rowe, a National Park Service photographer assigned to the White House. Visitors to the exhibit can also view never-before-seen film footage of the historic renovation.

Clay Bauske, museum curator, said the special exhibit has helped the museum have a successful year, with a steady flow of visitors. (photos by Ken Weyand)

Harry's feelings about the White House are depicted in several letters sent to his wife and daughter before work started. "This old place cracks and pops all night long and you can well imagine that Old Jackson or Andy Johnson or some other ghost is walking," he wrote.

Clay Bauske, museum curator, said the
renovation marked the first time that problems
with the second floor had been addressed. "When the earlier renovations were made in 1902 and 1927, they involved the first and third floors," he said. "The White House was like an Oreo cookie, with the middle being left until the Truman makeover. That meant the wooden beams hadn't been replaced since 1817 after the British had burned the original structure in 1814."

Several artifacts are displayed, including a
fireplace mantle from the Lincoln Room, and numerous objects made from the old structure.
In a desk and coffee table you can see original
nail holes and the scorches left by the British.

The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum is located 500 W. U.S. Hwy. 24 in Independence. It is open 9-5 daily and noon-5 on Sundays. For details call 800-833-1225 or visit

Ken Weyand can be contacted at Ken is self-publishing a series of non-fiction E-books. Go to and enter Ken Weyand in the search box.