Monday, December 9, 2013

A Public Construction Project to Remember - The Reconstruction of the White House During Truman's Presidency

The complete reconstruction of the White House during Harry Truman's presidency was perhaps the most historically significant public construction project of the 20th century.

Project challenges described in new book:  I've just finished reading a newly published book that tells the story of this project, and its challenges including the following:
  • Project design indecision
  • Political feuding about funding
  • Bidder pre-qualification
  • The low bid that was shockingly low
  • Delays in producing drawings for the contractor
  • Change orders
  • Over-budget - requiring additional funding requests to Congress
  • Schedule delays and late completion
  • A key subcontractor with a low bid who was missing-in-action and didn't staff the project adequately
  • Labor strike
  • Waiving competitive bidding for the interior decorator
  • And more... 
In The Hidden White House -  Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America's Most Famous Residence, Robert Klara has written the definitive, not to be surpassed, work on this sometimes overlooked major saving and reconstruction of the White House. 

A riveting story told well:  Robert Klara is a superb story-teller and historian who brings to life the untold stories surrounding this mid-twentieth century reconstruction of the White House.  Klara's narrative is filled with incredible detail, all supported by meticulous research and facts.  What is incredible is that the details do not get in the way, but instead enhance this rich and riveting story.  Klara's book is a delight to read and I found it hard to put it down.  As one presidential historian noted in her book review, "Klara has taken what is basically a construction plan and has made it read like an adventure story."

I'm giving away 3 free copies of the book:  I thoroughly enjoyed reading every page of this engaging book, and think you will too.  On New Years Day (January 1, 2014), I will draw three names from a list and give away (and send) three free copies of The Hidden White House to a lucky trio.  In addition to writing this Public Contracting Blog, I enjoy presidential history and write a Presidential History Blog (and am researching and writing on a book about presidential history).  To be eligible for the book giveaway drawing, all you need to do is sign up for a free email subscription to my Presidential History Blog at

Burned in 1814:  During the War of 1812, British forces swept into Washington, DC on August 24, 1814 and torched The President's House shortly after President James Madison left town in haste.  The house was re-built but many of the charred timbers that supported the interior of the building were kept in place in the repaired White House, leaving for a future president to address the less than sturdy structure.

Digging the sub-basement in the
demolished White House in 1950
In danger of collapse in 1948:  What is less well known than the 1814 attack on the White House are the unintentional assaults (renovations) of the mansion that occurred with every president.  "Each new 'improvement' meant more holes to be drilled in the wood, more walls to be moved or knocked down, and more weight heaped upon the house," Klara writes.  The abuses heaped upon The President's House over the decades culminated in the almost complete collapse of the building during Harry Truman's presidency.  

Gut and Rebuild:  From November 21, 1948 when the Truman family fled for a safer habitat, to March 27, 1952 when they returned, the interior of the historic home was completely gutted and rebuilt with a steel structure, leaving only the original outside walls remaining from the day in 1792 when  the cornerstone for the building had been laid.  As John Hersey, a writer for The New Yorker, noted about the new White House, "It was as if someone had decided to set up a modern office inside a deserted castle."

Politics:  Klara tells the story of sagging ceilings, stretching and tinkling chandeliers over social events in the White House, and inspections that revealed a sinking and collapsing mansion.  White House officials chose the moment of a state dinner in 1947 to inform the President that the chandelier chain in the East Room was "stretching."  Truman sarcastically noted later that "It was a nice time to tell me."  Concerns grew about the safety of the President and his family and they were eventually moved out to the Blair House across the street.  But Congress still needed to appropriate money for the expensive reconstruction, leaving some financially conservative members of Congress to consider tearing down the entire mansion and building something cheaper.  Ultimately, the outside walls were saved, but the interior was totally re-built.  Congress appointed a commission to oversee the work, but Truman himself played a decisive role in directing the work.

Process:  Klara takes the reader from the discovery of the failing structure through the decision making process about what to about it, to the actual gutting of the interior and saving of historical items (many of which would be cut up and sold as souvenirs), through the delayed and over budget construction process that included the building of an underground bomb-proof shelter. Along the way is the story of the attempted assassination of President Truman who was temporarily residing in the security-challenged Blair House across the street from the White House.

People:  Klara does a masterful job of painting portraits of the key people involved in the decision and actual implementation of the rebuilding of the White House, from members of Congress, to members of the commission in charge of the renovation, to White House staff to the contractors.  These men, and the Truman family, come alive under Klara's steady hand and insightful heart.  

Selecting a contractor:  To give you a sense of how The Hidden White House is amazingly relevant to public construction contracting issues today, and to give you a taste of Klara's writing style, here's an excerpt (headings are mine) from the book on the contractor selection process for the White House renovation project: 
Scope of Work:  On September 26, 1949, the commission [appointed by Congress to manage the project] released its terms for the White House renovation contract.  The document enumerated a job of dizzying proportions: interior demolition; removal and storage of historic decorative elements; shoring, bracing, and underpinning; excavation, ironwork and concrete; plumbing, electrical, and on it went.  The contractor was to stock all raw materials, furnish all equipment, and supply the skilled labor - and do it all within the confines of an 85-by-165-foot shell of fragile historic sandstone.  Here was a long, complicated, nerve-racking job.  Few construction companies in the nation were fit to even try for it.
Pre-Qualified Bidders Only:  [Public] Buildings commissioner [W.E.] Reynolds made clear that inexperienced or undercapitalized contractors need not apply: "The national and historical importance of this project demands that all materials and workmanship be of the highest grade and that the work be executed by individuals, firms or corporations...[with the] most skillful talents in the field of their work."  As a filter, Reynolds required all interested firms to complete a questionnaire.  Only the contractors that met his definition of having "special qualifications and experience" would be invited to submit a bid, and even they would have to do it in person.  At 1:00 P.M. on October 28, 1949, Reynolds opened the doors of the General Services Administration Building's auditorium, where he waited.
Cost-Plus-Fixed-Fee Contract:  Because of the risks and uncertainties of the White House renovation, the commission invited bids on a cost-plus-fixed-fee basis.  This structure provided that the government would reimburse the contractor for all materials and labor necessary to get the job done (the cost), while establishing a set profit (the fixed fee.)  The arrangement afforded a measure of protection to the contractor on a dicey job by guaranteeing his margin.  Even so, on a job this complex and dangerous, bidding was high-stakes poker.
A VERY Low Bid:  In the end, only fifteen contractors had the nerve to play.  The George A. Fuller Company, builders of New York's Flatiron Building, dropped off a bid for $242,500.  From Chicago, Bates & Rogers came in at $950,000.  Most of the contractors had tossed their hats in around the quarter-million-dollar range, and it looked like of of them would snag the job.  At least, it did until PBA administrator Fay Slater rose at day's end and read the lowest bid aloud to the room.  A "murmur of surprise," as the New York Times termed it, rose from the audience.
Contractor Comfortable With Low Bid:  The winner was John McShain, Inc., of Philadelphia, which agreed to take the job for $100,000.  It was madness.  No firm could make a profit on a fee that low.  But once the reporters finally located John McShain, he was entirely composed.  "I figured nobody would go as low as than," remarked the builder, "so I bid it."
Contract Awarded:  Eight days later, a letter from the Public Buildings Administration arrived at McShain's office at Seventeenth and Spring Garden streets.  "Your proposal dated October 28, 1949, for the renovation and modernization of the Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., is hereby accepted," it said.  The White House renovation now belonged to him.
About Robert Klara:  Robert Klara is also the author of the critically acclaimed book FDR's Funeral Train, another favorite book of mine.  Klara, who lives in New York City, has been a staff editor for several magazines and his freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, American Heritage, and The Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.

Get your free copy of the book:  Don't forget about the drawing for three free copies of The Hidden White House that I will hold on January 1, 2014.  To be eligible, all you need to do is sign up for a free email subscription to my Presidential History Blog at

Mike Purdy's Public Contracting Blog
© 2013 by Michael E. Purdy Associates, LLC


Unknown said...

Mike, enjoyed reading your post on the WH construction project. I have a weekend house in Luray, VA that was built during this timeframe, and the owner had acquired a couple of bricks from the WH renovation. It's a point of interest for me whenever I see a post on the topic.

Here is a link to my blog post that includes a photo of one of the bricks.

I'll add a link back to your post within that one -

"Cabin Jim"

Cynthia Shick said...

HI MIke, I look forward to reading the book, even if I don't win it! It's hard to find a good construction epic, yet so many of us spend huge parts of our life in the midst of one! I am recalling "Devil in the White City" by local Eric Larson, also a very enjoyable project management thriller involving an impossible deadline and the Chicago world's fair in the early 1900's ...

Mike Purdy said...

Thanks, Jim, for the link to your blog about the Hawksbill Cabin built partially with bricks from the White House! Fascinating story.