I mentioned yesterday about how impressed I was by the carvings on the White House. Intrigued, I decided to look into the history behind the construction of the building and in particular its carved ornamentation. It was George Washington who decided that the mansion be built from stone. The foundation stones are all Aquia sandstone (quarried in Virginia), which was also used by the first president at Mount Vernon, and is now infamously known for its inferior quality. According to the White House Historical Association the building was coated in a lime-based whitewash in 1798 in order to protect the porous stone from the weather, incidentally lending the house its name. When the mansion was destroyed by fire in the War of 1812, only its outer walls remained. However, most of the carvings were saved and reused when the house was rebuilt beginning in 1815. Over the years the house was painted repeatedly (not lime-washed) in an effort to keep it looking clean and white. This eventually obscured and dulled the carvings, and in 1978 during a major restoration, up to 30 layers of paint had to be removed.
The original 18th-century carvings were made by skilled Scottish stonemasons and include guilloches, griffins (a Washington family symbol), bows and swags. The garland of roses and acorns over the north portal (see above) is now partially hidden from view by the portico added in 1829. The roses that I admired on the columns of South Portico were added in 1824.
I am fascinated by the history of buildings ~ I love learning about how they evolve over time, how materials are reused, and the symbolism behind the decorative elements. So, I apologize for the history lesson ~ it’s the curator in me I suppose! For those who would like to know more, see Lee H. Nelson, White House Stone Carving: Builders and Restorers (National Park Service, 1992), a fascinating history of construction of the Executive Mansion
(image: White House Historical Asociation)