White House security

I don’t usually address WH security at all, but I was e-mailed a question about the history of the perimeter fence and ended up finding a very interesting Secret Service report on WH security (hosted by the Federation of American Scientists). It was written at the time of some security incidents in the mid-1990s that resulted in the closing of Penn Ave in front of the mansion. It includes interesting tidbits like the history of presidential security and the number of trespassers in the then-recent past.

UPDATE: The question in question was graciously answered by William Bushong of the White House Historical Association. I reprint his excellent reply here with respect.

While not always restricted to the public, walls and fences have surrounded the White House grounds almost as long as the mansion has been occupied.  When John Adams moved into the new house in 1800, construction sheds and debris littered the yard.  Trespassers chopped down many of the older trees for firewood.  Thomas Jefferson prepared plans in 1803 to cultivate the grounds into lawns, groves and gardens.  He cordoned off eight of the 82 available acres within President’s Park erecting a split-rail fence to the north and an eight-foot-high stonewall to the south, thus introducing fences to the White House landscape by 1808.

Though the immediate South grounds became a vegetable and flower garden for the first family, the enclosed North grounds remained open, as did the White House itself —a symbol of Jefferson’s commitment to an open and free democracy. By 1820, President James Monroe had replaced the rail fence with one of black-painted iron, the same style still seen there today. Iron gates on stone posts remained open during daylight hours.  However, the stone barrier on the south remained unchanged. Mischievous youths often painted their names on the wall until its removal in 1873.

President Grant built a new iron south fence at the end of his first administration. With time, the South grounds became accessible for public strolls and band concerts, as its gates were open daily.  The introduction of May garden parties in the late nineteenth century brought ever more guests to the grounds, offering sweets, music, and a cherished visit by the president to those invited. One event, however, left the South gates closed for some time. During his second term, Grover Cleveland’s beloved daughter Ruth was plucked out of her baby carriage on the south lawn by a group of visiting women and passed around to receive their coddling and kisses. So alarmed was Mrs. Cleveland that the South gates were ordered locked, not to be reopened for some years. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the start of World War II, the grounds were closed to all but those with appointments and guarded at their perimeters from newly installed gatehouses. The driveway was emptied and the custom of leaving calling cards at the North door was discontinued.

Today, copies of Monroe’s fence surround the White House and its 18 acres of lawn and gardens.  While ever-present security concerns usually keep the grounds closed to all but invited guests, the public is still welcomed in three times a year for fall and spring garden tours and for one of the White House’s most historic traditions – the White House Easter Egg Roll.

11 thoughts on “White House security

  1. Read it awhile ago, its quite interesting. I would recommend it to people that dont really know the history of the security of the White House. It also gives some great insight into the events that has happened in history.

  2. Wow! Really nice of them to respond to your request for more information. Great history indeed!

  3. I had heard about the Ruth Cleveland event through my family, since Frances Cleveland’s fierce antiphathy toward the White House was based primarily on this incident. It alarmed her so much that Clevelands did not live in the White House for most of Cleveland’s second term. Instead they bought a private house in Washington near St. Alban’s Church. The White House was only used for offices and State events, and the Clevelands would only spend the night there when a state dinner or reception ran too late for them to return home, and they would never have the children there overnight.

    The current fence is based on the Monroe fence in its overall design but it’s not really a copy. The formerly wrought-iron elements are much thicker in section, and I’m sure the current fence is some sort of tempered steel rather than wrought iron.

  4. Since they have closed the portion of Pennsylvania Ave. that runs directly in front of the White House, are there plans to remove portions of the road and install green spaces? I know that certain portions of that street must remain due to the entrance and exit of vehicles from the north side drives of the White House.

  5. I doubt they will take away any more of Pennsylvania Ave. and add green space. The entrances is one good reason plus the usage of the road for inauguration day/ the viewing stand.

  6. Don’t forget protest! A different question would be what will they do with the area on the south side of the WH fence (between the Washington Monument and the south lawn). All those cement barricades and temporary gates look terrible.

  7. I imagine that they will put bollards like on Pennsylvania Ave. I agree that they dont look good asthetically, but if they what it takes for the USSS to protect the President and First Family, then so be it.
    On the matter of removing Pennsylvania Ave I highly doubt that they will remove it because they spent a fortune redoing it, and it is used as a entrance for vehicles, the Secret Service uniform division always have 2 or more cars on the road at a time.

  8. I think that the Pennsylvania Avenue renewal is disappointing. The new trees are nice, as are the stone pavers at either end of the block. However, the majority of the avenue is paved in ordinary looking asphalt and still looks like what it is — a blocked off street, especially with the patrol cars parked there.

    I have always had a problem with the protesters. I think it is very American to be protesting outside the White House. But the protesters should not be allowed to build a tent like the one that seems to be always set up in Lafayette Park, as if someone is permantely living there.

  9. That tent is for the protestors that have taken a stand their since the beginning of the Iraq war and they refuse to leave until the war is over. Free speech is free speech.

  10. I really like the front area of the WH. It looks like a road because… it’s still a road. But they should have used stone on the road the entire way instead of just at each end.

  11. That tent has been there since before the Iraq war. So my question is, how many tents can be erected in Lafayette Square?

    I think protesters should be able to protest, of course, but only if they are present and actively protesting. They should not be leaving permanent tents.

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