Mystery construction site at White House: What's all the commotion?

The largest construction site at the White House in nearly 60 years has officials complaining about noise and the press corps conjecturing about what's really being built.

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Workers spread asphalt to repave a section of the driveway as substantial utility work continues in front of the White House's West Wing on April 23.

What is going on behind the big green wooden fence on the White House front lawn?

Visitors on Pennsylvania Avenue can gaze at a fountain circled by red tulips, nestled in a well-manicured lawn leading to the executive mansion’s imposing North Portico.

But the view just to the right of the ceremonial entrance is something rarely seen in the 219-year history of the president’s house – a construction site. The only project to rival this one in scope came between 1949 and 1952 when Harry Truman moved out to make way for a total gutting and rebuilding.

Now a yellow pile driver stands in front of the entrance to the West Wing, where normally tourists can watch a US Marine in dress uniform stand guard over the door to the Oval Office reception area. Between the White House and the adjoining Eisenhower Executive Office Building is a white-topped crane surrounded by concrete pylons, steel beams, and a temporary metal bridge installed over the excavation.

The four-year, $376 million construction project is being supervised by the General Services Administration (GSA), which says the work is needed to upgrade underground utilities such as water and sewer lines and electrical conduits.

“The last major renovation and utility upgrade to the West Wing occurred in 1934,” says GSA spokeswoman Sara Merriam. “Additional utility work occurred in 1970 when the press briefing room and offices were created.”

When work started last May, White House officials complained about construction noise. A second high wooden fence now has been built around offices to provide additional sound insulation. The view from the spacious ground-floor office of White House press secretary Jay Carney is a gray wooden wall.

The congenitally suspicious White House press corps speculates endlessly on what really is being built. One theory is that a tunnel, visible in the construction, is an underground escape route for the president between the West Wing and the adjoining office building. Not so, says the GSA. “The structure is a utility access pathway,” Ms. Merriam says.

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