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The White House

America's most famous house was designed in 1792 by Irish architect James Hoban. It was known officially as the Executive Mansion until 1902, when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it The White House, long its informal name. The house has undergone many structural changes: Andrew Jackson installed running water; James Garfield put in the first elevator; Harry Truman had the entire structure gutted and restored, adding a second-story porch to the south portico; and Richard Nixon installed a one-lane bowling alley in 1969.

To see the White House you need to contact your U.S. representative or senator (or embassy if you aren't a U.S. citizen). Requests can be made up to six months in advance (especially for spring, summer, or December tour requests) and no less than 21 days in advance. You'll be asked for the names, birth dates, and Social Security numbers of everyone in your group. On the morning of your tour, call the White House Visitors Office information line for any updates; tours are subject to last-minute cancellations. Arrive 15 minutes early. Your group will be asked to line up in alphabetical order. Everyone 18 years and older must present government-issued photo ID, and no purses, backpacks, or bags are allowed on the tour (and no storage lockers are provided so leave them in your hotel room). Photography is prohibited and there are no public restrooms. The security process will probably last as long as the tour itself, 20–25 minutes.

The self-guided tour includes rooms on the ground floor, but the State Floor has the highlights. The East Room is the largest room in the White House, the site of ceremonies and press conferences; this is also where Theodore Roosevelt's children roller-skated and one of Abraham Lincoln's sons harnessed a pet goat to a chair and went for a ride. The portrait of George Washington that Dolley Madison saved from torch-carrying British soldiers in 1814 hangs in the room, and the White House Christmas tree stands here every winter. The only president to get married in the White House, Grover Cleveland, was wed in the Blue Room. The second daughter of President Cleveland and First Lady Frances, Esther, holds the distinction of being the only child born in the White House. The Red Room, decorated in early-19th-century American Empire style, has been a favorite of first ladies. Mary Todd Lincoln had her coffee and read the morning paper here. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy undertook an extensive restoration of the White House to preserve and showcase the historical and architectural significance of the home and its contents. The East Garden, which now bears her name, honors her contributions. Michelle Obama has also altered the grounds, installing a vegetable garden to promote healthy eating.

Your tour of the White House will be enhanced by visiting the White House Visitor Center at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, featuring displays, photos, and a 30-minute video about the White House.


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