There is an old saying that if somebody asks for the time, you don’t need to tell them how to make a watch.
And so it is with The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence. Author Robert Klara has taken what is basically a construction plan and has made it read like an adventure story. This is no mean accomplishment, since it would be very easy to fall into a trap of blueprints and specifications, T-squares and slide rules. This book does not.
The supporting cast of players runs a gamut of the high and low, starting with Harry S Truman, President of the United States, and an assortment of White House staff members, offering their insights of nearly seventy years ago. Then there are Congressmen and Senators, some decidedly less than anxious to oblige a President with a thirty-something-percent approval rating (slated to fall even lower). They would change their minds. Then, of course, there were assorted architects, consultants and building contractors in a variety of disciplines, each with egos and agendas. And workmen whose sense of history did not preclude a strike. Then there were the commission members – since every government big-budget item needs a commission. Klara treats them all well and with great respect. They were, after all, the very best in the business.
There are no real villains here, unless it’s the earlier renovators with poor foresight as to the White House’s future needs, and who overloaded the amount the old place could bear.
The star of the show, of course, is the Great Lady herself, the White House, and according to Klara, she was not a “silent star.” By 1946 or 7, the old place was showing its age and its moans and groans were being heard – and seen, a la swaying and tinkling chandeliers and portraits askew. The Executive Mansion being what it has always been, a house of benevolent ghosts, its occupants were skeptical at first. Maybe it was just Jefferson and Lincoln pacing up and down. Actually, it was the stress and strain of generations of past presidential gerrymandered add-ons.
The scoffing did not last long, particularly when Chief Occupant Truman noticed slanting floors and sizeable gaps between woodwork and wall. The thought that a little shoring up ought to do was immediately scratched by even a cursory inspection. The problems were massive. Massive enough to give rise to suggestions of demolishing the old house and putting up a new mansion. That, in the eyes of HST, himself an ardent and knowledgeable history buff, was totally unthinkable.
The bottom line was more or less a complete gutting of the innards. The walls of the house that George Washington planned would remain the landmark it had become. The old façade was still strong, and with a little coaxing, promised to stand proud for centuries longer.
The gutting was like a surgical transplant: consultations, “prep,” (including moving the Trumans out for three years), building a semi-sheltered work area on the adjacent grounds, erecting a huge life-support system to keep the patient alive, and removal of the ancient and crumbling.
Along the way, relics and treasures were discovered: burnt timbers, souvenirs from the British soldiers who torched the place in 1814, old mantel pieces, including a few that weren’t very old at all, and some old stones with odd markings. According to Klara, they were thousands of years too young and on the wrong continent. Master Mason Harry Truman recognized those marks as Masonic symbols, carved into the stones by the craftsmen who built the original foundations. They were kept and reused in one of the kitchen hearths.
Then Klara delights us with the souvenir stories. What to do with the 200,000 bricks and the nails, boards and chunks of plaster that were unreusable? There were tons of debris. An assortment of memento packages were created at various levels. All were free, except for shipping and handling.
Add to the mix of a whopping good story, the momentous coinciding decisions of atomic energy, rebuilding a devastated Europe, fighting for a renomination, fighting even harder for re-election, an attempted assassination, a scary new war in Korea, and the usual trials and triumphs of life at the top.
Were mistakes made? Of course. Did it run over budget and over many deadlines? Foolish question. Might some discarded “relics” have been saved. Don’t be silly. But a three-year multi-million dollar project to restore a true national treasure was at stake. They did the very best they could with no computers, calculators or pizza-to-go.
All historians might take a lesson from Bob Klara: tell the story through the window, not the keyhole. Future generations will thank them for making history come alive. The Hidden White House is a great read! Harry would be proud.
Thomas Dunne Books, 2013