“If you can’t stand the heat,” President Harry Truman famously remarked about political life in Washington, “get out of the kitchen.”
“And head to the balcony,” he might well have added.
Last fall, President Obama made it quite clear. It isn’t the kitchen’s phenomenal fruit pies. It isn’t the cabins at Camp David. And it isn’t the pool, tennis or basketball court. The best part about being President is having the Truman Balcony to use for his weekly “date nights” with First Lady Michelle Obama.
Yet even on their own “back porch,” Presidential Families can have their troubles with “neighbors.” As reporter Michael Lewis wrote of his interview with the President in the October 2012 Vanity Fair:
“His favorite place turns out to be the . And we go out on the Truman Balcony. He explains to me how he will just come out here at night and sit, and he likes it so much because it’s the only place he gets where he feels outside the bubble. And this was one of the spine-tingling moments I had with him. Because while we’re talking about how this is the normal place, how he and Michelle can come out and have a drink on the patio at midnight, and no one knows they’re there kind of thing, he turns around and he points to the spot — it’s right behind his head — where a year ago….[A gunman] shot down from across the South Lawn, and the bullet hit the window right where Obama sits when he’s having his moment of privacy and peace. And I thought, there’s the presidency for you. You know, here is the place where you regard as the safe place, the place you can come and be comfortable and be normal, and people are still shooting at you.”
Still, Obama can thank Harry Truman for the relief of the balcony.
In fact, Richard Nixon did just that.
Or rather he thanked Bess Truman, after he and First Lady Pat Nixon returned from former President Truman’s 1972 funeral in a heartfelt letter of December 28, now in the archives of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, Missouri.
Dear Mrs. Truman:
A point I forgot to make in our meeting yesterday was that “The Truman Balcony” has been one of the most enjoyable features of our stay in the White House.
I remember the flap among architects at the time it was built. I know nothing about architecture (although I believe it adds to the beauty of the White House) but I do know something about the joys of outdoor living.
Having dinner on the balcony on the warm summer nights is a wonderful experience.
In that spirit which grows between members of First Families, despite even sometimes dramatic political differences, the incumbent President even invited the former First Lady to return for a visit “home” whenever she wished.
I believe your grandchildren would enormously enjoy stopping in the famous house where their grandparents and mother lived for over the years.
Mrs. Nixon joins me in sending our warm regards to you during these difficult days. We were very pleased to see you in such good health.
Sincerely, Richard Nixon
In November of 1947, Nixon had only been a freshman in Congress for eleven months when a national controversy erupted as word leaked out that President Truman was openly ignoring the disapproval of the Washington Fine Arts Committee and going ahead with his plan to forever alter the south view of the White House as the Presidential families and the nation had always known it.
He was building a balcony on the second floor of the White House, and turning a tall window of the oval-shaped study, part of the private family quarters of First Families, into a doorway leading to the balcony.
The idea had been sparked on July 4, 1947.
That day, President Truman had gone along with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to deliver an Independence Day address at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville.
As he looked out from the podium at the pavilions which lined the university’s “lawn” he couldn’t help noticing an architectural detail of the buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson, very much on his mind that day, since it had been the third President who’d written the Declaration of Independence.
An amateur historian, Truman knew that in 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had written an advertisement published in the new nation’s leading newspapers, calling for architectural submission for a “President’s House.”
The year before that, Congress had appointed a Board of Federal Commissioners. charged with the creation of the new capitol city, the “Federal City.”
They were offering a prize of $500 and a gold medal to the winning architectural design which they chose for what would become the White House.
And Jefferson, putting aside his political skills and employing his architectural ambitions, secretly submitted his own drawing under the anonymous initials of “A.Z.”
Now, giving a good look at the University of Virginia pavilions, all Truman seemed to see were Jefferson’s balconies.
And, as the Harry S. Truman Library website points out, the President “imagined that Jefferson might have had such a design in mind for the White House and that by building the balcony he would fulfill the former President’s dream.”
In truth, as proven by his submitted drawing for the President’s House, Thomas Jefferson’s dream did include four sides with long, white elegant columns.
But none of them had any balconies.
Of course, it had been James Hoban who had submitted the architectural design which won the contest and which the design of the President’s House was built from. But the Washington Fine Arts Commissioners and naysayers who shrieked horror at Truman’s impending desecration of what the great Washington had seen and what Adams, Jefferson and Madison had called home were also equally wrong.
Neither the north or the south side of Hoban’s completed President’s House had any columns, let alone portico.
When he came to inspect the progress of the President’s House as it was being built, former President George Washington never knew there was a South Portico.
In 1800, when John Adams and his family moved in as the first First Family to reside there, and in 1801 when Jefferson succeeded them, and in 1809 when James and Dolley Madison took occupancy, none of them or their guests or the public had ever seen a columned portico.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1826, a dozen years after what came to be called the White House was burned by the British, that the South Portico was finally added on.
Two of Harry Truman’s notable characteristics came together that day in the shadow of the Shenandoah: telling a great story and being stubborn.
Truman loved telling people how President Millard Fillmore’s only contribution had been installing the first White House bathtub.
When it was finally pointed out to him that the story was, in fact, a sarcastic concoction of newspaper wit H.L. Mencken, Truman fell stone silent.
A few weeks later, he was telling people the same story. It was just too “crackerjack,” as he used to say, to give up.
Truman hadn’t been entirely wrong, technically. When Jefferson was living in the White House, he had worked with architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe who drew an improved vision of Hoban’s original design, and it did include a North Portico and South Portico.
But still no balcony.
Well, anyway, Truman contended, putting a balcony in would break up the ridiculously long columns. In fact, he had the approval of one of the nation’s most eminent architects, William Delano.
Truman reasoned, Perhaps thinking of how much Bess Truman hated being on public display but loved rocking on back porches, Truman further argued that First Families had to come down from the living quarters and march through the public rooms, open to tourists during the weekdays, and tramp out to the South Portico just to get some fresh air.
They didn’t mind using it for ceremonial purposes, but it was hardly conducive to family privacy.
That was, in fact, true although many a First Family had made do with the South Portico.
Less than twenty years after the South Portico had been built, President James Polk and First Lady Sarah Polk had come out there to pose for history in the first photograph of First Families on the South Portico.
What made the 1846 image all the more interesting is that among the several individuals who joined them were former First Lady Dolley Madison and future President and First Lady, the bachelor James Buchanan and his niece Harriet. Lane.
In fact, through the 19th and early 20th century, the South Portico was especially popular with First Families, a place with natural sun where numbers of them posed for group portraits.
Well, Truman further made his case, there was the issue of those filthy, no-account awnings that First Families had to contend with. When the Chairman of the Commission made his final disapproving case hoping to stop the President, Harry Truman emphasized those awnings in his sharp response of November 1947:
“I can’t understand your viewpoint when those dirty awnings are a perfect eyesore with regard to that south portico. I have had them painted; I have had them washed and they have been renewed every year and still they look like hell when they are on the porch.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to take into consideration the comfort and convenience of the Presidential family in this arrangement . . . . I certainly would like to have your reasons for preferring the dirty awnings to the good looking convenient portico and then maybe I’ll come to a conclusion on the subject. I don’t make up my mind in advance. However, I’ll have to be convinced.”
Truman was never convinced. The plan went ahead, the balcony being designed by architect Alonzo Winslow. And the attacks came fast and furious.
Truman was called a little dictator, and certainly the memory of images of Hitler and Mussolini addressing the masses from elaborate and grand balconies had not dimmed so distantly in the public’s memory.
And if that seemed like a far stretch of a comparison to make, the sudden replacement of four Fine Arts Commissioners who’d opposed Truman’s balcony certainly seemed to give many pause.
After guiding the nation safety through to the end of World War II, the former haberdasher without a college education who many begrudgingly felt had done as best as could be expected following the monumental Franklin D. Roosevelt was now being ridiculed as an egotist.
He had not even been elected President in his own right by the public, many contended, but merely inherited the presidency as a Vice President, upon the death of President Roosevelt.
Washington reporter David Lawrence wrote a pithy article in January of 1948, which crystallized many of the arguments against “Truman’s balcony.”
Truman had no sooner had his way than he had to leave the White House – in an effort to stay there for four more years. The Truman family had almost no time whatsoever to actually enjoy the new balcony.
Instead, by the time the mugginess of summer had settled on Washington in 1948, the three Trumans were out across the entire country, barnstorming by whistlestop train and cross-country air flight, in parades, on grandstands and in ballrooms, campaigning first for the President’s nomination by the Democratic Party and then in the general election against New York Governor Thomas Dewey.
The odds were already stacked against him.
Southern Democrats who were outraged at Truman’s intention to racially integrate the U.S. Armed Forces, bolted the convention.
Led by South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond they formed the “Dixiecrat” Party and ran him as its presidential candidate.
The President won the nomination, but nobody predicted he could win against the efficient and smooth Governor Dewey.
And through all of the serious issues debated at the Democratic Convention and the threat they caused to a potential split in party votes that November and the Republican attacks of corruption and wasteful government spending, the issue of “The White House Porch” was always there to provide a lesson on hubris for those who believed it.
Before Bess Truman could sigh relief that she’d be soon sitting on her own Missouri back porch, however, Harry Truman pulled off one of the great political shocks of the era. He defeated Dewey and won his own four-year Administration as President, the term lasting until January 20, 1953.
But if he thought he could finally kick his heels up on his new balcony, he was also mistaken.
In completing construction of the Truman Balcony, the architect and engineers he called in soon realized that the White House was a serious health hazard to anyone who lived there – and not because of stress alone.
The old mansion, renovated a half-century earlier but without a modern standard of safety, was found to be in danger of collapse. The old soft bricks in place when it was rebuilt after the 1814 fire were crumbling. The legs of Margaret Truman’s piano had fallen through a wood floor. While Bess Truman was receiving the Daughters of the American Revolution on the floor below, she noticed the chandeliers suddenly starting to sway from the slight movement above, where Harry Truman was taking a bath.
“Imagine me coming down in the bathtub right in the lap of the DAR!” he cracked.
In fact, the wood beam beneath Margaret’s sitting room had cracked and the tiled floor of the President was sinking. The family relocated across the street to Blair House while the mansion was gutted, renovated and refitted with steel beams.
The Trumans didn’t return to live in the White House until March 27, 1952. They would have less than ten months more of residency there and only one summer to enjoy the Truman Balcony.
One of the original arguments that had been made against Truman’s balcony was that he was not a permanent but merely a temporary resident, and that Presidents and their families who followed might not like the addition.
For the record, every President, First Lady and their family have loved the Truman Balcony and used it for private time and entertaining, as the gallery below of those eleven First Families show:
There was one other significant change made to the Truman Balcony.
In 1985, during the tenancy of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, the old, rather flimsy looking white railing that had been in place on the Truman Balcony since it was first built was finally replaced with a sturdier black iron one, which matched the design of the one below, which faced the South Portico.
The Hallmark Iron Works was contracted by the United States Government to .
- Bess Truman Rocks The Back Porch & Her Only Recorded Interview (carlanthonyonline.com)
- The Presidency: President Truman & National Security (c-span.org)
- Before they became president, they held hourly jobs! (snagajob.com)
- Presidential whiz kid hits metro to learn more about Truman (fox4kc.com)