The President’s House
By William Seale
Reviewed by Tony Pelczynski, Reference Assistant
The President’s House, by independent historian William Seale, is an engaging—if initially imposing—two-volume history of the White House. Running chronologically through America’s Presidential line, from George Washington (who commissioned the construction of the White House, but never actually lived in it) to George H.W. Bush, the book covers the gamut of White House history in entertaining detail. Housed in a sturdy and handsome slipcase, and running to just over 1200 pages, Seale has written an enlightening history of what just might be the most recognizable residence in the world.
Seale, editor of the journal White House History, is eminently qualified to take on the topic: in addition to researching and writing about historic buildings, he restores them. Seale is clearly interested in the White House from (quite literally) the ground up. And while the subject matter and length of the book may seem off-putting to those outside the presumably limited circle of hardcore White House history buffs, Seale’s lively prose and storytelling keep the reader absorbed. While the focus is on the structure itself, the book’s scope necessarily expands beyond (or, more to the point, into) the White House’s walls, taking into account the lives of the men and women who have lived and worked under the White House’s roof: the Presidents and their families, of course, but also the gardeners, cooks, maintenance workers, and others who have historically kept the place running, day-to-day.
As both residence and locus of Presidential power, the White House has always stood alone, symbolically: while the U.S. Capitol and the Supreme Court building may arguably be equally recognizable structures, they both represent collective democratic institutions. The White House is, uniquely, the home of a single (albeit enormously important) individual and his family. Seale’s expansive history continually reminds the reader that the White House is, first and foremost, just that: an actual American home, filled with the messiness and unpredictability of human life that term implies. Over the years, the building has hosted births, deaths, weddings, funerals, and any number of other milestones of human happiness and suffering, to say nothing of the physical upheavals that the structure itself has endured over the years.
At the same time, the White House has always functioned as something of a national museum and political stage. Even those who have never set foot inside the building can conjure a mental image of the Oval Office, or (as is more likely) one of its many cinematic or television iterations. Perhaps because of the White House’s fixity in the American imagination, various presidents and their spouses have, to varying degrees, attempted to stamp the abode with their own personalities and identities, frequently to less than unanimous critical acclaim (recall here Melania Trump’s much-derided minimalist Christmas displays). Seale does a fine job of surveying the various changes the White House and its décor have undergone over the years, none more extensive than President Truman’s “down to the studs” renovations.
Seale ends The President’s House at the George H.W. Bush administration, although he does include a too-brief epilogue touching on the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush years. At 80 years old, Seale may be done writing on the topic, but his book leaves the reader hoping for at least one more update covering the last two Presidential administrations. While its current occupant has reportedly proclaimed the White House to be “a real dump,” given the care and attention to detail that Seale has so clearly poured into his book, one gets the impression that the author feels very, very differently on the subject. Update or no, The President’s House will likely remain the definitive history of this most symbolic of American residences for years to come.