One of the more obvious and visible effects of the War of 1812 was the damage caused during the British attack on Washington on 24 August 1814, two years into the war. After defeating American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British marched on defenseless Washington DC, and sacked and burned it. The Capitol Building and the White House were more or less gutted. Although the walls remained, they were heavily stained and blackened by the destructive fire.
One of the common historical myths about the White House is that it was painted white for the first time in order to cover up the scorch marks and damage from the 1814 fire. It was after this painting, so the story goes, that the White House started to be called “The White House.” This myth was only enhanced with the advent of chain emails sent around starting in the 1990s.
As much as that story may touch the patriotic heart and stroke patriotic pride about the survival and renewal of the country, it’s not true. The White House was always white. It was given a coat of whitewash when it was finished in 1798 because its sandstone construction needed to be protected against the weather. The earliest reference we have to someone calling it as “The White House” was in 1811 when the British minister to the United States referred to it as such in a letter to one of his ministerial colleagues. In early 1812, before the War broke out, a Massachusetts congressmen wrote in a letter, “There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it. I mean the President’s .”
The fresh coat of white paint the mansion received while being rebuilt undoubtedly contributed to the increased use of the term “White House” throughout the first half of the 19th century. But what’s perhaps most interesting about this story is gives us an opportunity to discuss the range of names that the building has had in its history.
Its original name was “The President’s House.” It was designed by the Irish-American architect James Hoban, and its cornerstone was laid in 1792 during the presidency of George Washington. It was finished in 1800, and John Adams was the first president to live there. “President’s House” was more or less the official name (with “White House” being used informally) until roughly 1850. After that, “Executive Mansion” was the preferred official name. But “White House” became more or less universally used throughout the 19th century. So much so that President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order making “The White House” the official government name in 1901.
And, in case you’re wondering, Buzzkillers, the last time the White House got a full repainting was 1989. We’ll let when the next one comes around. In the meantime, go visit Washington DC and do the tourist thing. Even grumps like me think it’s fun.