The press-room politics of a hidden White House swimming pool

From the days of FDR to Richard Nixon, the White House had an indoor swimming pool. It still exists. But the current press room sits on top of it.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Barack Obama speaks to reporters in the White House press briefing room. Beneath the floorboards, FDR's old swimming pool lies empty and dormant.

You’re the president of the United States, and you’ve just spent a long, hot July day doing something draining, like pretending to be optimistic about the Middle East peace process. What’s better than walking out back and taking a dip in the pool?

Barack Obama can do that. There’s a very nice outdoor swimming pool behind the West Wing, screened by trees and a changing cabana. It’s long enough to swim laps in, and it boasts a diving board and adjoining spa. It was installed by President Ford, whose son Jack used it for scuba lessons. Barbara Bush was one of its biggest fans, even though she once spotted a rat paddling away in the water.

But did you know there is a second, ghost pool hidden away within the White House itself? It’s empty today. A little renovation might ready it for a refill, but that will probably never happen, for political reasons.

First, some background. The (now) ghost pool was installed in 1933 in the gallery between the White House itself and the offices of the West Wing. It displaced a laundry room. FDR needed it for therapy swims for his polio-stricken legs.

President Truman swam in it while wearing his glasses. JFK used it at noon and in the evenings, religiously. His father paid for an elaborate mural of sailboats in the Caribbean, which at one time covered three of the room’s walls.

But Nixon was more concerned with press coverage than practicing the breast stroke. He laid a floor over the pool and created a White House media briefing room. That’s what the space remains.

Reporters would go ballistic if any administration tried to displace them in the name of increased opportunity for presidential relaxation. The nattering nabobs want to be as proximate to power as they can, and any new briefing room would likely be much farther from the Oval Office.

But in 2000, workers installing cables clambered through a trapdoor and discovered the pool was still intact. Not surprising, the deep end is right under the podium where the press secretary stands.


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