Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

Lesson 1: How Was the White House Designed?


The Lesson


The White House

The White House

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory

To help students understand some of the issues involved in designing and improving the "President's House," share a photograph of a building that students will recognize immediately as humorously inappropriate for the official residence of the President of the United States. For example, show them a photograph like the Shack available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory.

Guiding Questions

What process was used for choosing the initial design of the White House?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lessons in the unit, students will be able to:

  • Take a stand on whether the chosen White House design or one simpler or grander would best reflect what our President's house has come to represent.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. How Was the White House Designed?

Tell students the building in the photo is the official residence of the fictitious President of Upper Yodonia. What assumptions would they make about Upper Yodonia after seeing its "White House"? In what ways would this building be appropriate (for example, the modesty of the house would symbolize that the President is not considered above the people but simply another citizen) and/or inappropriate as our White House? What characteristics are desirable in an official residence for the leader of any country? Our country? Let students know that in this lesson, they will be looking at how the White House was designed and how it functions today.

Share with the class the Advertisement for Best Design Competition in the White House Historical Association website lesson activity, "Building the White House," a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore DC. Here is a transcription of the text:

A premium of 500 dollars or a medal of that value at the option of the party will be given by the Commissioners of the federal buildings to the person who before the fifteenth day of July next shall produce to them the most approved plan, if adopted by them for a presidents house to be erected in this City. The site of the building if the artist will attend to it, will of course influence the aspect and outline of his plan and its destination will point out to him the number, size and distribution of the apartments. It will be a recommendation of any plan if the Central part of it may be detached and erected for the present with the appearance of a complete whole and be capable of admitting the additional parts in future, if they shall be wanting. Drawings will be expected of the ground plats, elevations of each front and sections through the building in such directions as may be necessary to explain the internal structure, and an estimate of the Cubic feet of brickwork composing the whole mass of the walls.

Guiding Discussion Questions

What characteristics does the advertisement state the judges will be looking for in a winning design?

One requirement asked the designer to plan a building that would fit well in the site selected for the President's House. What would that mean? For example, the President's House when built had a view of the Potomac. Share with students the following documents, also from the White House Historical Association website, to give them some idea of the proposed site and design for Washington, D.C., at the time the advertisement appeared:

Point out to students where it is located in relation to the proposed Capitol. Discuss the fact that L'Enfant planned a palace. His design was much larger and grander than the design finally accepted. Why do students believe a smaller, simpler design was chosen?

Why would a palace not be appropriate? For classes that would benefit from more extensive background, share the second to sixth paragraphs of the essay The L'Enfant Plan and McMillan Plans, on the National Park Service's EDSITEment-reviewed website Discover History.

Now share three of the original drawings submitted for the design of the President's house, available on the White House Historical Association website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Explore DC:

  • James Diamond's Design
  • James Hoban's Design
  • Design by "A.Z."—Sometimes attributed to Thomas Jefferson

    (NOTE: A 1916 book, Thomas Jefferson Architect, by Fiske Kimball—available online at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, a link from the EDSITEment resource American Studies at the University of Virginia—contains drawings that the author labels:
    1792. Design for the President's House at Washington, as submitted. Drawn by Jefferson. Maryland Historical Society Archive. Published by kind permission of the Society.

    These drawings are preserved by the Maryland Historical Society in a volume entitled Rejected designs for Capitol and President's House, Washington, presented by Mr. J. H. B. Latrobe, the son of the architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. They are there marked “Presidents House” on the margin, and numbered 41, 42, 42 ( bis! ), and 43.

    In the same handwriting are pencil notes, “Abram Faws” and “Abraham Faws,” added on the plan and the elevation, respectively. The notes and figures in Jefferson's hand which form an integral part of the drawings make it evident that this ascription to Faw was an error of the compiler of the Baltimore volume. The technique in line is identical with Jefferson's, and the washes show the same streaky and uncertain character which appears in Jefferson's other rare experiments with the brush (Numbers 38, 39, 175). The cause of the mistaken attribution may be sought in the pseudonymous initials “A. Z.” by which Jefferson distinguished his design. In the absence of knowledge of the real authorship of the drawings these letters were evidently taken as “A. F.”
    But according to the article Designing the White House 1792 on the White House Historical Association website, “… Historians have speculated that Thomas Jefferson was the mystery designer, but records suggest that the architect likely was John Collins, a builder from Richmond, Virginia.”

Have students list the characteristics of each design and then compare them. Which is the most “palace-like”? Which is the most like a home? What adjectives would students use to characterize each?

Did students find significant differences between the competition designs in terms of their lavishness or formality? Show students again the picture Shack on the EDSITEment resource American Memory. This was an extreme example; no leader of a large nation is likely to live in such a simple dwelling, for both ceremonial and practical reasons. L'Enfant had proposed a building very grand and palace-like. Washington opted for something less grand, but still relatively opulent. The President's house did not have to be as grand or as formal as the design that was chosen. But would something simpler truly have proven satisfactory given the history of our country and its presidency since then?

Read with the class the following excerpts from the essay Beauty and History Preserved in Stone by William Seale, available on the website of the White House Historical Association, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Explore DC:

The White House, built in the late eighteenth century and magnificently embellished with stone decoration, was the finest residence in the new republic. It is perhaps curious that a republic would permit so opulent a residence for its elected head of state, but a public tally did not make the decision. George Washington approved the White House. His expressed wishes included not only the stone construction but extensive stone ornamentation as well.

… The White House broke with all American precedents not only because of its great scale, but also because of the richness of the stone carving. President Washington overrode the opinions of Thomas Jefferson and the city commissioners to make this house stone instead of brick. The elegant swags of oak leaves and flowers, the window hoods, the lofty pilasters, and the charming motif of cabbage roses were all executed to suit Washington's taste. The familiar image of the White House, a distant view with porticoes, does not include details of the stone carving, and even those who visit often miss them … One can suppose that it was through these decorations that George Washington hoped to give the President's House prominence and exception as a house of state.


Why does the class suppose Washington insisted on a formal, somewhat grand President's house? Jefferson disagreed with Washington. He considered the President's house too large and too impractical. Before he moved in, he added two toilets and coal-burning stoves in the fireplaces. Later he added room for storage.

What can the class suppose about Jefferson's ideas for a President's house? Do students agree more with Jefferson or Washington? Taking into account what we now know about the presidency and about the growth of the U.S., would students have chosen one of the other designs? A completely different design?

Classes that have completed the curriculum unit, What Happens in the White House? or that have studied the presidency should be able to consider the role of the President, the way the residence would be used, and the symbolism desired for our leader's home when making a decision.

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Architecture
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • MMS (AL)