While thousands of people walk the corridors of the White House every day, only a lucky few know exactly what it’s like to live in one of the most recognizable homes in the world. And if you’ve not been a president or a member of their immediate family, the chances are that you have no idea what goes on behind closed doors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So, while The West Wing may have you thinking that you’ve got a handle on White House goings-on, the following fascinating insights may just surprise you – particularly when it comes to what’s lurking in the building’s basement.
20. The lavish mansion is larger than it looks
Make no mistake: the White House is massive. Yes, while the presidential palace may seem at a glance to have only the two floors, there are actually six levels to the building – half of which are subterranean. And altogether, a staggering 28 fireplaces are needed to warm the 55,000-square-foot space.
There are also three elevators and eight stairways to choose from in the White House – although the route you take may be decided by which one of the 132 rooms you want to enter. And while the historic mansion is naturally unlikely to be up for sale in the near future, only a select few could ever afford to buy. In 2017, you see, Zillow suggested that the president’s pad is likely to be worth a cool $397.9 million.
19. Even presidents’ children like to slip and slide
If you ever slid down the banisters as a kid, you’re in good company. After all, Teddy Roosevelt’s children are said to have done the same. Alice Roosevelt in particular sometimes decided not to take the stairs; instead, she slipped down the railings when she felt the need to shock any important visitors to the White House.
And it appears that tradition has continued into the 21st century. You see, at the unveiling of George W. Bush’s White House portrait in 2012, Barack Obama claimed that his daughters, Sasha and Malia, had followed two tips they had been given from Barbara and Jenna Bush. Apparently, the former first daughters had told their successors to not only find buddies whom they could trust, but that they should also make time to slide down the banisters.
18. Over 3,000 full-time staff call the White House “the office”
Of course, there are more people to be found within the White House than just the president and their family. Around 3,300 folks have full-time jobs at the residence, with many others in part-time or remote roles. And those staffers aren’t always in the most obvious places, either. The rather unheralded Office of Management and Budget, for example, employs more than 500 people alone.
That’s not all, either, as the Secret Service also boasts around 3,200 special agents. And when the president finishes up their term and moves out of the White House, their employees usually leave their positions, too. Suffice to say, though, that there’s no shortage of potential replacements for such prestigious roles.
17. The “transfer of families” can take no more than 12 hours
Yes, only half a day is allocated to move the new U.S. leader and their family into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That’s because the president’s term does not actually begin until 12:00 p.m. on January 20, and all activity must be totally complete before the clock ticks over to January 21.
Within that 12-hour window, then, the White House is spruced up from top to bottom, with painting, window cleaning and carpet changes completed if necessary. And that’s even before the new president’s belongings are shipped in and put in place, which naturally takes some time by itself. All in all, it’s quite the military operation.
16. The White House has its own furniture warehouse
One thing that may hurry the move along, however, is the clandestine storage facility that houses some of the belongings of previous White House residents. In what must be the most exclusive furniture shop in the world, incoming presidents can take their pick of interior decorations – and they have plenty to choose from, too.
In a 2009 conversation with The Washington Times, erstwhile White House curator Betty Monkman referred to the Maryland-based warehouse as containing a “historic record of everything that has been used in the White House over the last 200 years.” And there’s yet another perk of the job; the new commander-in-chief can also choose an artwork from a national museum to display on the White House’s walls.
15. The building is apparently haunted by a former head of state
Furniture may not be the only thing that a new first family inherits, though, as legend has it that the ghost of a former president lingers in the White House. And according to one piece of popular lore, British prime minister Winston Churchill was so spooked by seeing Abraham Lincoln’s spirit that he outright rejected the prospect of sleeping in what had once been Honest Abe’s bedroom.
Lincoln’s apparition has also apparently caught the eye of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and Calvin Coolidge’s wife Grace. But he’s not the only one to reportedly be haunting the White House hallways. The ghostly form of Thomas Jefferson supposedly comes out from time to time, too, to give residents an impromptu violin recital.
14. Presidents have shared the White House with some pretty cool pets
While naturally several cats and dogs have taken up residence in the White House, the mansion has also hosted some altogether more unusual animals over the years. Calvin Coolidge once owned a raccoon called Rebecca, for example, while Woodrow Wilson welcomed sheep into the grounds to tend to the grass during World War I. John Quincey Adams even roomed with an alligator and apparently relished in scaring unsuspecting guests by introducing them to the reptile.
Back in 1863, meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln’s son Tad took to a turkey that had been intended for eating and treated him like a resident pet. The little boy is even said to have once begged his father to spare his new pal when it dawned on him that the bird may be dished out during the Christmas feast. And some believe that it was this very incident that actually inspired the presidential tradition of pardoning the Thanksgiving turkey.
13. The White House is home to its own beehive
It turns out that the White House doesn’t only buzz with its many members of staff. In 2009, you see, a beehive was set up on the grounds in order to help fertilize Michelle Obama’s garden. And when Barack Obama ordered the introduction of “a federal strategy to promote the health of honeybees” in 2014, the first family were therefore seemingly leading by example.
Now, tens of thousands of “first bees” swarm to and from the White House hive. And the produce of the resident pollinators isn’t only served up in presidential dinners, either. Apparently, the honey the insects create is also handed out as a present to a lucky number of people.
12. The building also boasts its very own movie theater
Thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first family have their own 42-seat theater if they ever fancy watching a flick. Yes, ever since the 32nd president ordered a permanent picture palace be installed, American leaders have been able to wind down with movies sent straight from Hollywood – and usually before the public can see them, too.
Yet even before the movie theater came into being, films have found their way to the White House. Reportedly, the very first picture to be shown at the mansion was controversial drama Birth of a Nation in 1915. And the space isn’t only in use as a screening room; from time to time, it’s also picked as the place in which the president can run through key speeches and addresses in private.
11. You can throw quite the dinner party
Naturally, the White House’s cadre of chefs can whip up quite the feast – and for plenty of people, too. Up to 140 visitors can enjoy a tasty dinner at one time, in fact. And if nibbles are the order of the day, then the kitchen can do even better. Apparently, they can produce hors d’oeuvres for over 1,000 guests during any given occasion.
In charge of the White House’s trio of kitchens is the full-time executive chef, with Cristeta Comerford having been in the role since 2005. And under Comerford’s watchful eye, the chefs serve up some delicious-sounding food. When the mansion hosted a 2019 state dinner for Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, for example, there was sunchoke ravioli to start, followed by an entrée of Dover sole with parsley crisps and a dessert of lady apple tart.
10. You can still cook for yourself, though
If the president or their family decide to chop, peel and sauté for themselves, though, that’s perfectly possible. In such instances, there’s also a specific kitchen on offer for them to do just that. Interestingly, though, that particular space was designated solely for the professional chefs in the White House until the Clintons decided otherwise.
Hilary Clinton certainly cooked when her husband was in office, at any rate. On one occasion, it’s said that the first lady chose to whip up a comforting mix of scrambled eggs and applesauce when her daughter Chelsea was feeling under the weather. Bill, on the other hand, was more likely to be found watching sports in the kitchen.
9. But the president must shell out for whatever they eat
Yes, even the leader of the free world has to deal with bills, as the first family are expected to fork out for their food along with any dry cleaning they may need. And that’s something with which Laura Bush seems to agree. “It is more than fair that [the president pays] for personal items like every American household,” the first lady wrote in her 2010 memoir Spoken from the Heart.
Bush has admitted, however, that there were “some costs that [she] was not prepared for” – like having to purchase the designer clothing befitting of a woman in her position. And among the many things that the president has to pay for, that includes some wages – specifically those for the White House wait staff.
8. The White House’s internet is as patchy as yours
Yes, paying for food isn’t the only thing that the president has in common with us regular folk. It appears, you see, that 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue isn’t the best when it comes to internet connectivity. While speaking to CBS This Morning in 2016, Barack Obama explained, “We’ve been trying to get [the internet] straight for the next group of folks, because this is an old building and there are a lot of dead spots where Wi-Fi doesn’t work.”
During the interview, Michelle Obama added that accessing the web can be “a little sketchy” and that her daughters Sasha and Malia “can be a little irritated by it sometimes.” So, it seems that even being the President of the United States won’t always allow you to beat buffering.
7. The basement is basically a shopping mall
Who really needs Wi-Fi when you’re one elevator away from a mall, though? That’s to be found underground, and while the space is hardly a shopping paradise, it’s likely that no other home in America can boast of having its own florists and carpentry shop. Then, of course, there’s also the famous bowling alley that Richard Nixon had fitted during his tenure.
The basement area can be accessed via an 82-feet-long corridor, and it also harbors a paint store, an engineers’ shop, cold storage and a chocolatier among other services. It’s because of this arcade of amenities that the White House is often considered to have its very own strip mall down below.
6. And there’s something top-secret there, too
When the White House’s West Wing disappeared behind a blockade of fences in 2010, there were rumors that work on a new underground command center was underway. Officially, though, the project was not branded as such; instead, it was said to be “an elaborate renovation of the building’s aging air-conditioning and electrical systems.”
This explanation didn’t convince everyone, however. And a 2011 report by The New York Times only added fuel to the fire. According to the esteemed publication, a “White House official” claimed that the building work was “security-related” – although they couldn’t be any more specific.
5. There’s even a dental surgery down there
Yes, the White House really does have its own dentist’s office and has done since the Hoover administration. But, of course, the underground surgery that Barack Obama wound up in back in 2015 when he believed he had a loose crown is much more advanced than it used to be. Initially, it’s said that the space only used to host a single chair – meaning any dental professionals who attended to the president had to use their own tools for the job at hand.
So, what happens if the president’s teeth give them grief while they’re at Camp David? Well, again, they can be treated in private at the Maryland abode’s sister surgery. And the dentist who looks over the oral health of the first family is naturally specially picked – usually from the U.S. Navy’s National Naval Medical Center.
4. And there’s a secret entrance to the building
It’s fair to say that not every White House guest has come in through the fabled Entrance Hall. You see, there’s a clandestine access point to the building – one that starts two blocks down from the president’s house next to a strengthened vehicle gate. From there, the path meanders to a Treasury Department wing on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Since the 1940s, a subterranean tunnel has also snaked its way from the East Wing to the Treasury Department. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure, you see, it was thought that the presidential mansion could be struck by an air raid. As a result, then, the underground tunnel was swiftly created –along with a furnished bomb shelter.
3. The White House has hosted a prom
Yes, Gerald Ford’s then-17-year-old daughter Susan Ford held her senior prom at the most famous home in the U.S. A 2015 article by Vanity Fair claims that Susan and her Holton-Arms classmates dined on Swedish meatballs and danced in the East Room until the early hours of June 1, 1975.
The lucky attendees even got to enjoy a trip on a presidential yacht at one point during the festivities. Altogether, then, it must have made for a memorable night. And who knows? Maybe there’ll be another prom at the White House in the future.
2. The Press Corps had no coffee machine until Tom Hanks walked in
Living in the White House may have plenty of perks, but the mansion can still lack some basic amenities – as Tom Hanks noticed back in 2004. In particular, the Oscar-winning actor was taken aback by the absence of a coffee machine in the Press Corps office during his visit. And in a generous gesture, Hanks subsequently shelled out for just such a device on behalf of the journalists on the White House beat.
Hanks didn’t stop there, either, as he’s since bestowed two further coffee makers in the years since. The latest of these machines arrived in 2017, along with a message that apparently read, “Keep up the good fight for truth, justice and the American way – especially for the truth part.”
1. Residents are not allowed to open the windows
When speaking to Le Monde in 2018, French first lady Brigitte Macron lamented the fact that her American counterpart “can’t even open a window at the White House.” And during a 2015 appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Michelle Obama confirmed as much, saying, “People don’t realize… we can’t do little things like open windows.”
After her husband finished his second term in office, then, Michelle was “[looking] forward to getting in a car and rolling down the window and just letting the air hit [her] face.” And while life in the White House may seem luxurious on the surface, it seems that it can also be quite isolating. Perhaps that’s what Harry S. Truman was getting at when he famously referred to the presidential palace as a “glamorous prison.”