Infrastructure you say?

One afternoon in early 1946 Bess Truman was hosting a reception for the rouged, graying ladies of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the Blue Room on the ground floor of the White House. Mrs. Truman purportedly hated such social rituals, as did the president. Regardless, she was grinning and nodding benignly as the ladies merrily milled about the room.

Meanwhile, upstairs, directly above the Blue Room, President Truman was relaxing in the tub. There was a tinkling sound. Looking up, Beth Truman noticed the room’s 1,200 pound chandelier had begun to sway. She summoned the head usher who raced upstairs to investigate finding the president in the tub wearing his glasses and reading a book. Meanwhile, downstairs, the ladies were tactfully escorted from the room.

President Truman speculated and laughed at the image of himself in the bathtub coming through the floor upon the Daughters of The American Revolution wearing nothing more than his reading glasses. Beth Truman was not pleased.

It was more than a joke. There were serious troubles in the 150 years old White House. It creaked and groaned, as all old buildings do, and there were rumors of ghosts, but shaky floors and swaying chandeliers presaged collapse. The president was aware of the problems and summoned an investigation.

The report previewed what was to come, but President Truman was distracted by other, more substantive matters: the coming Cold War, a Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, rumors of a pending Russian nuclear test, an obstinate “do nothing” Congress and the 1948 elections. Nothing was done — until a leg of Margaret Truman’s piano went through the second floor. It seems Margaret and a friend were too vigorously playing a two-piano duet. The weight of the two pianos split a decayed beam beneath the floor, abruptly ending the duet and Margaret’s Steinway.

This incident was the last straw. The president learned of it as soon as he returned from a 12-state campaign train trip. He was furious. The president’s house was falling down. This was no time for procrastination. Something had to be done, but Truman paused. An election loomed in a few months and he didn’t want the White House to be yet another issue on the menu. Thomas Dewey was enough.

In September 1948 the White House architect put out a bland statement and everyone crossed their fingers. Two days after the election the president and family moved across the street to Blair House. They didn’t move back until March 27, 1952 — three years and four months later.

The Trumans didn’t care much for Blair House. Security was poor — leading to an assassination attempt on Oct. 31, 1950, but while they were there the news about the White House got worse. It was first thought the problems were confined to the second floor. However, a closer inspection found that not only were the wood beams supporting the second floor deteriorated, but the foundation, that held up the exterior walls, was crumbling.

Built in 1792-1800, rebuilt in 1817 after it was burned by the British in the War of 1812. With the exception of repairs and improvements by Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 and, again, Coolidge in 1927, there had been no major work.

It came down to two choices: demolish and rebuild the interior, reinforcing and keeping the exterior walls intact, or demolish the building entirely and construct a new executive mansion.

The president and his appointed architectural commission selected rebuilding and the work proceeded. First came the removal and salvage of the buildings interior. Everything was stripped and a new foundation constructed under the existing walls. A new sub-basement and underground secure rooms were added. Steel beams replaced the interior framing. Finally portions of the original, conserved interior went back — and then the project ran out of money.

Congress was in a bad mood and wouldn’t spend more funds. Unfortunately, much of the conserved, historic interior was hauled to a landfill. New construction filled the rest of the building. Most of what’s there, today, dates to 1950 — not 1796. Eleanor Roosevelt purportedly quipped that it reminded her of a Hilton Hotel.

I was a kid at the time and remember some of it. My grandfather was a Democrat and a Truman fan. Grandmother thought FDR was Satan and Truman his disciple. As a first grader, I remember their words about the falling down White House and what was being spent on the work. Grandfather blamed it on neglect. Grandmother blamed it on Truman.

There’s a book in my collection, “The Hidden White House,” by Robert Klara, that recounts the whole story. President Biden’s infrastructure proposals prompted a re-read. I recommend it.

There’s a message: Maintenance deferred is maintenance ignored, and even with the best of plans, projects don’t always come in under budget. This one didn’t either. Pay now or pay later. Let’s get to work and get it done.

John Diers is a Prior Lake resident who spent 40 years working in the transit industry and is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot.” To submit questions or topics for community columnists, email editor@plamerican.com.

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