Cultural symbols are often images that embody specific ideas amongst the populace thus denoting the culture of that group. These may range from national flags, buildings, monuments and the like. Usually, cultural symbols have an emotional appeal because they have the capacity to motivate and appeal to a wide range of people.
The United States has a diverse population and there is a need to bring together these variant groups through a cultural symbol synonymous to the entire nation. The white house has been instrumental in achievement of this objective from the early nineteenth century.
History of the white house
President George Washington is credited with the idea of the white house. In 1790 this leader announced that there would be a residential area for all subsequent US presidents and their families and that this would be in Pennsylvania Avenue. He was responsible for selection of the architect who would build this historical building.
Ten years later, the building was completed and the first president moved in. There were several changes that the building underwent especially after the 1929 and the 1814 fires that took place. Some parts of the building have been altered but the main section remained as it was originally (Whitcomb, 33).
How the white house acts as a cultural symbol
The white house is quite easy to recognize in Washington DC. It architectural design is rather simple when compared to other national buildings. However, it is this simplicity that has endeared it to a number of people. The founding fathers had intended for it to be that simple because they probably felt that this would be a representation of the principles and ideals that they had in mind for the United States.
When one sees an image of the white house, the first thought that is likely to come to one’s head is it is a residential home for the head of state. In other words, citizens often view this building to be synonymous with leadership because this is where the nation’s leader resides.
In essence, this can be translated to mean liberty and democracy in that the country has a leader who was elected democratically by the people of the United States and the place where he resides therefore captures these values. To many, the white house symbolizes power or the ability to control and influence such a large nation as the US.
The white house is able to trigger these deep associations because of plenty of reasons and one of them is its history. The white house was first completed in 1800 but its beauty was soon to be interrupted in 1814 when British soldiers came and burned it.
However, it was rebuilt with even better improvements. With time, a number of features kept being added such as the wings, green houses, offices and the like (Johnson, 83). These subsequent changes represented a critical aspect of the American culture; resilience. Even after the white house had been burnt down by the British soldiers, the country was still able to pick itself up again and rebuild.
Many Americans have carried forward that message into their lives because even when life presents certain predicaments, Americans can still pick up the pieces and try again. The continual redesign of the white house also illustrates the creativity inherent in many citizens. Most presidents who resided in the building would customize it so that it could suit their needs. Sometimes this necessitated tearing down certain elements and in certain scenarios it necessitated building others.
Therefore, most changes made to the building represented the character of the leaders that created it. Furthermore, interior decorations made almost always represent the preferences of the residing families. Americans have come to identify with this principle because most of them will utilize their creative talent in order to make situations workable. The white house is therefore able to appeal to citizens emotionally because most of them will reexamine the history of the building and relate it to their own lives (Johnson, 12).
Presidents usually have the prerogative of hosting visitors of the state in whichever way they would like. In the past, this was done very openly in that the public could enter the white house. Most often, the public would be allowed in after the inauguration ceremony. However, that culture changed because of security concerns for the president. Notable presidents who kept the white house open to the public included Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln.
With time, inaugurations came to be marked by the inaugural parade that is often displayed in front of the white house. Instead, most dinners are organized based on the preference of the leader in office. All these different ways of hosting reflect the diversity of American Presidents in the past. Consequently, this is also synonymous to the diversity of the American people; conversely, it also shows their hospitality.
The existence of a committee for the preservation of the white house illustrates how historic this building is. Every time a single president intends on making changes to the building, he must present the draft to the latter committee and wait for feedback from them. This is done in order to protect the historic integrity of the building.
This implies that most first families are aware of the fact that they are only in those premises temporarily although they still have the opportunity to make their mark in the country’s history. The relative ease with which one can recognize the white house today even after two centuries of habitation is a testament of how historical this building really is to the American people.
The white house is also unique to the United States because even though other countries of the world have official residents for their heads of states, none of them have designs like the white house. Indeed when receiving Presidential visitors from other countries of the world, it is the white house which is usually used for these purposes.
Therefore the contrasts between visiting nations and the host country often demonstrate how representative the white house is to the nation. Usually, visiting heads of state will be expected to land at the South lawn in the white house and their receptions will be carried out in a grand way through minor ceremonies (Whitcomb, 33).
It is quite interesting how many external developments in the country have been incorporated into the white house. In 1890, the white lawns were made up of green buildings where plants were grown through the use of glass buildings. This represented the growth and development of green houses around the country.
Therefore because of this, one can say that the White house epitomizes technology and development in the country because new inventions will often be tried out in this building. For example, in the carter administration, computers were just getting introduced into the world of work. This was the reason why President Carter felt it necessary to bring them to the white house.
He also did this alongside the laser printer. He also wanted to be proactive when it came to green energy and added solar heating panels in the white house. The subsequent president Ronald Reagan continued to improve computer technology within the white house and he therefore encouraged other people who were interested in making similar changes in their lives to do the same. The white house normally contains state of the art machinery and technology and therefore can be seen by many as an instrument of development (Seale, 11).
The white house also contains a press briefing room. Usually, when there is an important state development or some information that the President or his staff wish to give to the public then they will normally employ the press briefing room. With time, the white house has therefore become a source of news and information on public policy.
Many presidents have often stated their opinions on crucial issues such as public education and terrorism using this very room. In fact, it has been synonymous with policy dispensers. White house representatives are often politically oriented as most of them must be highly aware of the issues going on in the country and the presidential stand on them.
It should be noted that although the white house is unique in its own right, its design was inspired by several Irish based buildings including the Leinster house in Ireland’s capital. The latter building used to host members of the Irish parliament. Other inspirations for the building include the Rastignac country house found in France.
Although it is debatable to what extent the white house borrowed from either buildings, it is essential to acknowledge that the work was not completely unique to the US and that there were foreign elements in it. This indicates that the United States, much like the white house, depends on other nations in order to survive. The country cannot deal with its challenges without networking with other partners in just the same way that it did when building the white house.
It should be noted that the actual construction was done by a number of immigrants with some coming from Scotland and others emanating from other parts of Europe (Seale, 40). The white house therefore needed input from different types of people without discriminating upon them. The same applies to the country which often requires input from a number of people so that the idea can be workable.
The white house can be seen as a representation of the independence of the United States. The country would not have been able to construct premises for its head of state if it was not independent. In deed the reason why British soldiers came and burnt the building in 1814 was because they opposed that independence and wanted to make a point about it.
Citizens of the country often reflect upon this history and think of the astounding progress that the nation has made through self governance. The residential home of these leaders who have taken the country through such a journey is therefore precious to the eyes of the Americans.
One may wonder why the white house has not changed much over the years especially since heads of state tend to be highly opinionated. However, for something to have sentimental value or to act as a cultural symbol, then it must remain the same or as close to the original as it possibly can be. The white house today still has very close resemblance to the white house of 1800 because most of it was preserved for posterity’s sake.
The white house is in the same league as many cultural symbols of America. It is often identified with leadership, liberty, independence and freedom. Others think of it in terms of power while others appreciate the creativity incorporated by most heads of state in incorporating some of their preferences in the interior design. The white house also represents the resilience of the American people and their diversity as seen through the design’s influences.
Whitcomb, John. Real life at the white house: 200 years of daily life at America’s most famous residence. NY: Routledge, 2000
Johnson, Micheal. A chateau fit for a president. International herald Tribune, September 2006
Seale, William. The White house, the history of an American idea. American institute of Architects press, 1992