It is a clear winter’s morning on Oahu Island, Hawaii. Visibility is good. Suddenly a formation of Japanese bombers roars into view – and they start raining hellfire. The surprise attack on the U.S. naval base of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed everything. Not only did it hasten America’s entry into the war, it exposed serious flaws in the nation’s security. As such, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered work to commence on a host of clever renovations to the White House.
Of course, it stands to reason that a structure as vast as the White House has its share of quirks and hidden features. Among its labyrinth of corridors and enclaves, there are in fact 132 rooms in the presidential residence, which are serviced by no fewer than 35 bathrooms and 412 doors. A constant hive of activity, the behemoth structure is spread over six floors and requires a small army of staff for its round-the-clock operations.
For the White House is far more than a mere residence. It is a seat of executive power. As such, it plays a central role in fomenting and communicating domestic policy. It is involved in international diplomacy, too, providing hospitality to visiting envoys and dignitaries. However, the infrastructure that FDR installed in the White House had a far more opaque and secretive purpose. What’s more, it continues to play a vital operational role today.
The White House stands at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., the oldest federal structure in Washington D.C. Initially known as the “President’s Palace”, it was renamed as the “Executive Mansion” to disassociate the office from notions of royal privilege. In 1902 Teddy Roosevelt officially renamed it the “White House” – a popular reference to the grayish white sandstone with which it was built.
The site for the White House was chosen by George Washington in 1791, with its first cornerstone actually being laid on October 13, 1792. The building was then constructed over several years by African American slaves and immigrant laborers, including teams of Scottish stonemasons. Drafted by Irish architect James Hoban, the original blueprint for the White House envisioned a three-floor, sandstone structure with 100 rooms.
With the relocation of the federal government from Philadelphia to Washington, President John Adams moved into the White House in 1800. However, a letter by his wife Abigail suggested there was still much work to do. She wrote, “There is not a single apartment finished… I use the great unfinished audience room [East Room] as a drying room for hanging up the clothes.”
But the White House began to shape up during the term of Jefferson, who was inaugurated as president in 1801. His renovations included landscaping the grounds with large, earthen mounds reminiscent of his homeland, Virginia’s Piedmont region. He also decorated the White House in so-called Federal Style, also known as Louis XVI Style, complete with showy, ostentatious trappings.
Since then, the building has undergone several phases of construction and reconstruction, with each president leaving his mark. Nonetheless, as a symbol of America, the White House remains as true and faithful as ever. Whether home to a Democrat or Republican, the big house on the hill is an enduring emblem of liberty and hope – just as the nation’s founders had intended.
Naturally, the White House has a range of lavish dwellings that are literally fit for a Queen. On the second floor of the White House Residence, the so-called Queens’ Suite includes a bedroom, sitting room and bathroom with plush furnishings and slightly kitschy decor. The room is used by visiting monarchs, including the Queen of the United Kingdom, who first stayed there in 1957 at the invitation of Dwight Eisenhower.
Equally, the White House hosts an array of idiosyncratic amenities: for example, a single-lane bowling alley complete with swanky sofas and customized bowling balls. Originally built by Truman in 1947, the White House bowling alley was remodeled by Nixon in 1969. He and his wife were ardent bowlers and the newly spruced feature served as a memorable location for a photo shoot.
On the ground floor of the Residence, you’ll find the White House chocolate shop. It probably doesn’t stock Hershey’s, but it does produce lavish chocolate sculptures, such as hand-painted Easter eggs weighing in at 40 pounds. In fact, the White House chocolate shop – along with the White House florist and carpentry workshop – is the place to source exquisite pieces for official functions, as well as extravagant gifts for the President’s friends, family and visitors.
The defunct White House pool was the subject of several controversies over the years, starting with Kennedy’s alleged parties. The president, according to rumor, was fond of taking naked dips with Priscilla Wear and Jill Cowen, two assistants with the suggestive nicknames of Fiddle and Faddle. However, Nixon subsequently built a press briefing room over the pool, putting an end to all such shenanigans.
On the first floor of the East Wing – which is also home to the office of the First Lady – there is a 40-seat home cinema that would be the envy of any film buff.Offering cozy front-row views, four plush armchairs – complete with luxury foot stools – are available for the exclusive use of the president and his family. Of course, the president has access to any film he wants, even pre-releases.
However, the place for serious recreation is the game room on the third floor of the White House Residence, which contains a large pool table and other installations. President Trump was reportedly unhappy with the gameplay provided by an “older, lesser sophisticated” golf simulator added by Barack Obama, so he replaced it with a $60,000 upgrade. The simulator is reportedly large enough to require its own room.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the maze of rooms is a very special amenity allegedly added by President Trump. According to Omarosa Newman, a former presidential aide who wrote about her experiences in the tell-all book Unhinged, the secret to the president’s robust complexion is a tanning bed, specially installed on his order. However, other aides have failed to corroborate Newman’s claim.
The White House is fitted with all kinds of secret switches, as the author and journalist Ronald Kessler explained to British newspaper The Sun in 2019. He said, “Dotted around the Oval Office are various trinkets and ornaments bearing the presidential seal… like the coffee table and on the President’s desk. What few know is that if the President turns one over it activates an alarm which will bring the Secret Service running.”
Moreover, in the event of a serious threat engulfing the White House, a network of covert passageways can be used for escape or communication. For his part, President Truman completely restored and remodeled the White House over a period of three years, starting in 1950. His additions included new steel beams and repairs to the concrete, as well as a secret tunnel connecting the East and West Wing.
To mitigate the risk of a terror attack, President Reagan added another tunnel in 1987. In the basement of the Residence, a closet near the Presidential elevator opens onto a hidden tunnel. The tunnel leads to a spiral staircase which then connects to the Oval Office via a secret door. Inside the office, the door can be revealed by pressing a special wall panel, James Bond-style.
Such measures are additions to the original security infrastructure installed by FDR in the 1940s. Born in Hyde Park, New York on January 30, 1882, Roosevelt was the 32nd president of the United States. He served 12 years from 1933 to 1945 and is the only president in history to have been elected four times. His legacy was sweeping and immense.
His first major challenge upon assuming office was tackling the Great Depression. As an initial measure, FDR immediately passed the Emergency Banking Relief Act, which was designed to revive public confidence in the banking system. He also started speaking directly to tens of millions of Americans through broadcast radio. His so-called “fireside chats” helped to cement his image as a personable and trustworthy commander-in-chief.
To alleviate the profound economic crisis facing farmers, workers and the unemployed, FDR passed his so-called “New Deal” in his first 100 days, which included a raft of legislation aimed at stimulating public works. His reforms also included new regulations to prevent abuse of the stock market. And with the green shoots of recovery in sight, in 1935 he passed a “Second New Deal” that provided vulnerable Americans with social security for the first time.
His second significant challenge was, of course, World War II. On December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor, FDR declared war on Japan. Speaking to the joint session of Congress, he said, “Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”
At international level, FDR worked closely with Churchill and sought to warm relations with the Soviet Union, whose troops ultimately proved vital in defeating Hitler. At a domestic level, he started implementing new security measures. This meant new upgrades for critical important operational infrastructure such as the White House.
As historian Douglas Brinkley explained to the news broadcaster CNN in 2020, the White House was uniquely vulnerable. He said, “A White House bunker was an absolute necessity during World War II. We were terrified that Germany was going to try to blow up Washington D.C. The Germans were building rockets. It was a bullseye, the White House.”
Roosevelt’s answer, then, was to construct a bomb-proof shelter and command center under the East Wing. Known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center (PEOC), the underground complex is today protected by a series of impenetrable vault doors and a high-tech biometric security system. It is so secure it can even withstand a nuclear attack.
In FDR’s day, the PEOC included furnished living and working spaces fashioned out of granite vaults. But its most audacious component was a tunnel linking the White House with the Treasury. Thus in the event of a catastrophic hit on the White House, the President could escape the building and resurface on H Street.
The route, which has been pieced together from old newspaper reports, apparently begins in the White House basement. From there, two underground tunnels lead to a sealed alley, which in turn leads to a nondescript door opening into an annex of the Treasury Department. Accessed in the other direction from H Street, the secret passage is guarded by a Secret Service kiosk and ram-proof gate.
Of course, there came a time during FDR’s term when even the bunker was deemed too risky for the president. As such, he started working out of “Shangri-La” – a mountain retreat in Maryland. The location of Shangri-La – which is today called Camp David – was then a closely guarded secret and many people just assumed FDR was in his bunker.
Truman expanded the PEOC right before the United States committed to war in South Korea. The extensions were added as part of general maintenance and remodeling works overseen by architect Lorenzo Winslow. The exact nature of the PEOC improvements are a mystery, but according to a memo by one of Truman’s aides, they included “alterations at the basement level” with “protective characteristics.”
The bunker continued to be shrouded in secrecy throughout the Nixon era. However, according to former Nixon counsel John Dean, who wrote about his White House experiences in the book Blind Ambition, we do know it was once used to screen a porn film – for purely research purposes. Officials watched the film to determine whether its raunchy depiction of Tricia Nixon and Ed Cox’s wedding – staged in drag – was grounds for a lawsuit.
The PEOC was memorably scrambled to action after al-Qaeda launched coordinated terror attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The moment it became clear that America was under attack – and that the White House was a potential target – the secret services ushered Dick Cheney, various members of the Bush administration and the Bush family into the subterranean vaults of the PEOC.
Writing in her 2010 memoir, then-First Lady Laura Bush described being “hustled inside and downstairs through a pair of big steel doors.” She wrote, “Everybody who was in the West Wing was now forced underground into this bunker complex… We walked along old tile floors with pipes hanging from the ceiling and all kinds of mechanical equipment. The PEOC is designed to be a command center during emergencies, with televisions, phones, and communications facilities.”
Prior to 9/11, White House contingency plans had called for the President to be removed from the building in the event of a terror attack. However, the rapid speed of events on 9/11 demonstrated the urgent need to revise those plans. Furthermore, the incident showed that the PEOC was somewhat outdated as a command center. The Vice President was quick to voice complaints about its “terrible” communication systems.
Speaking to The Washington Post newspaper in 2020, author and journalist Ronald Kessler explained how 9/11 had underlined the importance of upgrading the PEOC. He said, “The idea was, before that, that if there were a nuclear attack or something… the White House staff and the president’s people could be evacuated to some remote location at West Virginia or Pennsylvania… But then they realized after the 9/11 attack that they could never leave Washington, certainly by vehicle, because all the roads were clogged.
As a result, a costly new system of tunnels and bunkers is believed to have been added to the White House in 2010. Construction of the alleged command center was carried out in secret with the plausible explanation of “general maintenance”. It is thought to have cost $376 million, but there are scant details about its facilities.
Speaking to The Washington Post, Kessler described the complex as both sizeable and secure. He said, “What it consists of is five stories deep into the ground with its own air supply and food supply. It is sealed off the above-ground area so that if there were, for example, a nuclear attack, the radiation would not penetrate into this bunker, which has very thick concrete walls.”
Most recently, the PEOC made headline news after President Trump took refuge there. The United States had been experiencing widespread unrest after the alleged murder of an African American citizen by police officers. And Trump’s security team were apparently so rattled by the presence of noisy protesters outside the White House that they escorted the President and his family to the bunker.
The President allegedly spent an hour or so in the PEOC. And when he was subsequently quizzed by the media, he shrugged off his visit as an “inspection”. Of course, the term “bunker mentality” is often applied to political administrations who fail to engage with crises and instead retreat into defensiveness and isolation. Trump was keen to dispel the suggestion that his response to the unrest was an example of it.
He said, “Well, it was a false report. I was down during the day and I was there for a tiny, little short period of time. And it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day… I’ve gone down two or three times, all for inspection. And, you go there, some day you may need it. I went down. I looked at it. It was during the day, and it was not a problem.”
Whatever the truth, the PEOC – and its subsequent additions – will continue to play a vital operational role in White House security. Constructed by FDR to counter the threat of an attack, the complex is not only a permanent architectural feature of the presidential residence, but a symbol of closely guarded state secrets. We will probably never know exactly how it has been used – or even misused – in the decades since it was first built.