Monday, October 21, 2013

The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence by Robert Klara

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 17, 2013

Critically acclaimed author Robert Klara leads readers through an unmatched tale of political ambition and technical skill: the Truman administration’s controversial rebuilding of the White House. In 1948, President Harry Truman, enjoying a bath on the White House’s second floor, almost plunged through the ceiling of the Blue Room into a tea party for the Daughters of the American Revolution. A handpicked team of the country’s top architects conducted a secret inspection of the troubled mansion and, after discovering it was in imminent danger of collapse, insisted that the First Family be evicted immediately. What followed would be the most historically significant and politically complex home-improvement job in American history. While the Trumans camped across the street at Blair House, Congress debated whether to bulldoze the White House completely, and the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb, starting the Cold War. Indefatigable researcher Robert Klara reveals what has, until now, been little understood about this episode: America’s most famous historic home was basically demolished, giving birth to today’s White House. Leaving only the mansion’s facade untouched, workmen gutted everything within, replacing it with a steel frame and a complex labyrinth deep below ground that soon came to include a top-secret nuclear fallout shelter. The story of Truman’s rebuilding of the White House is a snapshot of postwar America and its first Cold War leader, undertaking a job that changed the centerpiece of the country’s national heritage. The job was by no means perfect, but it was remarkable—and, until now, all but forgotten.

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Truman White House Reconstruction
Since we met, my husband has teased me for reading books like Robert Klara's The Hidden White House, likening me to Abigail Chase and giving me a hard time for burying myself in information that will never come up in regular conversation which is why I found it so amusing when the tables turned and he suddenly wanted to know more about the book I'd casually mentioned over dinner a few days before. 

Suspicious, I began fishing for details and managed to discover his curiosity was sparked by the passing reference to Truman's reconstruction project in Olympus Has Fallen and the discussion that followed made me appreciate Klara's work all the more. 

The White House is one of the most iconic buildings in the United States, but it is also one of the most enigmatic. We all know what it looks like and the names of those who've called it home, but we don't value the history of the building itself or the effort required to preserve this living piece of our nation's heritage. In point of fact most of us are completely unaware of how close we came to losing it through slip-shot engineering and poor maintenance.

Declared in danger of eminent collapse in 1948, Truman essentially had the building gutted and rebuilt from the inside out, leaving only the famed exterior intact. Klara's work details the massive scope of the project, chronicling how the building fell into such a state of disrepair and the extensive reconstruction that was required to save it. 

Enjoyable and informative, I appreciated both Klara's insight and light humor. A great read for anyone interested in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

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It’s inevitable that a president’s decisions will always anger someone. But Truman had dropped atomic bombs on two foreign cities to comparatively little protest, yet now the public was berating him over a porch? Truman felt as though “he had been accused of interfering with the natural order of the universe.”
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