Restoring America's House

The White House's sandstone walls get a $2.4 million refurbishment

There's a bit of irony in the fact that a gray-bearded Englishman has spent years saving the White House - the same structure his ancestors tried to burn down in the War of 1812. For more than a decade, Patrick Plunkett, a master stonemason with slate-blue eyes, has shown up for work here, chisels and power tools in hand, to restore the original sandstone walls of the White House.

Repairs to the four-story-high walls of the president's residence, 11 years in the making, are expected to be completed this summer. By the time Mr. Plunkett and his crew pack up their tools, the $2.4 million patching and plugging project will have prepared this national treasure for another two centuries of lashing thunderstorms and blizzards.

The need for restoration first came to light during the Carter administration, when workmen were sprucing up the old house for bicentennial celebrations. When the paint they applied fell off in sheets, they realized that the entire history of US paint was encased in the thick pieces, 58 layers deep in some places. But they also discovered that they had a much larger problem: Behind the paint, the 204-year-old walls were rotting away.

In 1985, Plunkett and his crew began patching and plugging the surfaces. Plunkett has found scorched stone from the fire in 1814 set by British soldiers. In some places, the smell of soot exuded from decaying stone as it was removed. He mends the walls by marking the bad stone and removing it, as far back as a foot in some places. Measurements are taken, a new piece of stone is carved, and it is set back into the wall with mortar or epoxy or, in some cases, stainless-steel pins. When the work is done, distinguishing the repairs from the original is difficult.

In his work, Plunkett has been a fly on the wall, of sorts, witnessing White House history from his scaffold. The building is a thread of continuity to the past in a country that paves over much of its history or sets it aside in museums. All America's presidents have lived here except George Washington, who oversaw early construction.

Plunkett says he sometimes thinks about the men Washington recruited. "The quality of their work on the White House is exceptionally fine," he says. "It says a lot for the people who actually constructed this building."

To this day, the White House is a unique national centerpiece. News breaks here and is beamed from the front lawn to satellites that send it around the world. Heads of state come to call here. More than a million people tour the house each year and marvel at the center of American power.

Gary Walters, chief usher of the White House, says all the presidents and their families since Carter have put up with the loud and dusty stone work, although any one of them could have put the work on hold.

The walls are the second biggest restoration project at the White House since the cornerstone was set in 1792. In 1948, President Truman had the interior gutted and rebuilt, adding steel structure for support. But the walls were considered sacrosanct. He insisted they be untouched, and he forbade changes to the building's outside appearance.

Although one milestone will soon be reached, the next administration will face more inconvenience. The building's air-conditioning and heating system is being replaced and other minor repairs being made, which could take another year and a half. White House historian William Seale says those who endure the inconvenience get no appreciation. "It's the most thankless thing an administration can do, because it looks the same when finished. It's just stronger."

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