Family Elevator

President Obama gets on the elevator in 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)


Barney rides the elevator in 2004 (White House)

Going up, Mr. President?

The family elevator is the main elevator of three in the Residence (the others are in the pantry and under the Grand Stair in the Entrance Hall).

Before elevators came to the White House, this area had only a back stairway, useful for servants—or a president looking to avoid office-seekers on the main stairway. Chief Doorkeeper, Captain Pendel, wrote:

Where the elevator now [1901] is, there used to be a pair of little old-fashioned stairs. You would go up a few steps and come to a landing; up a few more steps and another landing, and so on. This was a favorite stairway of Mr. Lincoln's, for he used it more than any other in the house.

An elevator had been planned for the use of James Garfield's elderly mother, but his successor Chester Arthur installed the first one in 1881, an early hydraulic model, which required the removal of the stairs. In 1898, an electric model was installed, but it did not work very well. It was replaced with a more efficient model by architect Charles McKim during the 1902 TR renovation. President McKinley's assassination still fresh in her mind from the previous year, Edith Roosevelt's request to McKim was to "make the elevator door wide enough to admit a stretcher."

Roosevelt's son Quentin and his friend Charlie Taft, son of the next president, used to ride—on top of the elevator and once coaxed the boys' pony into it to bring it to the second floor to cheer up Quentin's brother Archie. This manual electric, cage-type elevator was replaced with a more modern elevator in the Franklin Roosevelt era. A new, automatic elevator still used today was installed by Lorenzo Winslow when he oversaw the reconstruction of the White House for Harry Truman, which included sub-basements that the new elevator needed to be able to reach. Mamie Eisenhower tried to forbid the staff from using the family elevator so the family would never have to wait, but after his heart attack, President Eisenhower used the stairs instead for exercise.


Floor display over the elevator;
the pre-1949 elevator display read B, 1, 1M, 2, 2M, 3 (HABS)

John Kennedy, on the other hand, used the elevator whenever possible because stairs worsened his chronic back pain. Around the time of the Kennedys, the elevator was redecorated in pale hues. In the 1990s, the Clintons had the elevator restored to its natural wood finish.

The family elevator goes to all floors in the Residence, from the sub-basements to the ground, first, first mezzanine, second, second mezzanine, and third floor. It has eight stops.


More Images

Looking out into the Cross Hallin 2010 (White House - Samantha Appleton)

The Obamas ride to the family quarters at the end of Inauguration Day 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)

Close-up of the woodwork in the elevator in 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)

President Obama rides to the family quarters at the end of Inauguration Day 2009 (White House - Pete Souza)

Visitors on the first floor elevator hall in 2008, looking south (Daniel)

President Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney exit the elevator in 2007 (The Presidents)

Visitors on the elevator in 2006 (Spificwoman13)

Portrait of a doorman, 49 years on the White House staff, circa 2002 (White House - Tina Hager)

The Clintons on the elevator in their last days in the White House in 2001

The Clintons on the elevator after a function, circa 2000

Elevator in 1992 (HABS)

Elevator doors in 1992 (HABS)

First floor Elevator Hall in 1992 (HABS)

First Mezzanine Elevator Hall in 1992 (HABS)

Second floor Elevator Hall in 1992, looking north (HABS)

Second floor Elevator Hall in 1992, looking south;
the floors available now are B, BM, G, 1, 1M, 2, 2M, and 3 (HABS)

Jack Ford (in mirror) with security in 1976 (Rolling Stone)

Elevator in 1963 (Kennedy Library)

Second floor Elevator Hall, around 1962, showing the Lannuier swivel-top card table (Kennedy Library)

The new elevator being installed in 1951 (Truman Library)

The new elevator motor in place in the basement in 1951 (Truman Library)

First floor Elevator Hall in 1948, looking southeast;
the floors available are B, 1, 1M, 2, 2M, and 3 (Truman Library)

Ground floor elevator lobby around 1916 (Wilson Library)

Recreation of the original elevator in in the Taft era, circa 1909 (Backstairs at the White House)