Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Hidden White House, Robert Klara


The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence


Robert Klara

Category: Nonfiction: History: Politics & Washington, D.C.

Synopsis: A recount of the 1948-1952 White House renovation project, carried out under President Truman.

Date finished: 10 January 2014

Rating: *****

I was about 30 pages into this book when I told my husband I’d found one of my top ten books of 2014. Within another 20 pages, I was on Amazon ready to buy everything else Robert Klara has ever written (which, disappointingly, was only one other book). That’s how much I enjoyed this book, from the very beginning.

Yes, I’ve come to have a full-blown love affair with books about history that don’t read like history books, if you know what I mean. This one fits the bill so well, and I’m so smitten, I just don’t even know what to say.

Why did I like it so much? Well, the writing has a great deal to do with it. It’s written in a simple, engaging style that gives you lots of facts that are fun but not “fluffy” and never descend to tedium. It’s a fine line, and Klara walks it expertly.

I’ve long had a fascination with the White House, and I’ve always wished I knew more about American presidents, especially 20th-century ones. This book not only captures the scope and frenzy of the 836-day White House renovation, but serves as a primer to Harry Truman and his presidency.

On a more subtle level, though, this book is about human nature, the delicate balance and inevitable compromise between traditions and modernization, and the conundrum of updating an historic building in order for it to remain a stage for “future history.”

Klara covers the renovation in exhaustive detail, and each chapter was captivating. For instance, souvenir hounds from all over America were asking for a piece of the old building. So the commission set up a souvenir program and filled 30,000 requests. In another chapter we learn of the assassination attempt on Truman’s life while he and his family were living in the hard-to-secure Blair House (housing across the street from the White House traditionally used to board visiting dignitaries).

And of course, we learn of all the ups and downs and budgetary woes of the $5.8 million mid-century reno. We learn of the deplorable state of the mansion when Truman takes office and of the years of abuse and poor choices heaped upon the aged structure. The walls were bowed and crumbling, the beams (some dating back to the fire of 1812) were giving way, the floors bounced like springboards, and 1,200-pound chandeliers were about to fall. Some in Congress wanted to raze the White House and start over. Some wanted to build a new White House and turn the current one into a museum. It was finally decided to keep the original exterior walls and build a steel frame inside, correct the footings (the White House was built on swampland—the location chosen by President Washington, who, incidentally, was a land surveyor), and gut and rebuild the interior. A secret $1 million bomb shelter would be added to the new basement level. 

In many ways, the renovation failed miserably. (1) The budget was so tight there was barely any money allotted to furnishing the completed structure. Since there was very little that could be salvaged and reused, the scant money set aside had to be stretched by using reproduction furniture and fixtures. (2) Truman, wanting to spend the last part of his presidency in the White House, rushed the work mercilessly, causing corners to be cut. (3) The renovation commission didn’t care to save the old White house details; much of it was sent to the dump. (4) The White House architect’s obsession with Federal-style purity did not allow the mansion to feel up-to-date. Many felt the new White House had an institutional feeling. Eleanor Roosevelt told others she thought it looked like a Sheraton Hotel. Truman left Washington thinking that the exterior of the White House was much improved, but the inside was worse than ever.

The last chapter is kind of heart-breaking. No one seemed to like the new White House, but only one man (the White House architect) had been interested in holding onto the character of the White House by retaining the charming pieces that were discarded. But as Truman issued his drop-dead date—and then moved it up a week—time ran out, and creating new moldings, etc., was just cheaper and faster than repairing crumbling ones.

But, sometimes history is like that. Sometimes we have to learn from our mistakes—which means making big mistakes. At this period in history, America was recovering from WW2, the Soviets built the bomb, the Korean War broke out. Nations were amping up their ways of killing and defending themselves, Americans feared the spread of communism. And in the middle of it all, Washington rebuilt the manse that had housed 32 presidents and would go on to house another 11. It made mistakes in execution but not in motive.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone looking for a slice-of-history book with real heart.

Would you recommend this to a friend?

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