What's in the White House Basement?
The most exciting part of the White House may be underground. Learn about the White House basement escape tunnels, command center, bowling alley, and hidden facilities.
The basement of the White House is nothing like your home’s basement. Even if your basement has a man cave, home office, workshop, rec room, Airbnb rental, or other creative uses, it’s probably not as interesting as the White House basement.
Want proof that some of the best rooms can be underground?
Let’s take a virtual trip to Washington, D.C., and tour all of the interesting rooms that are below the White House and home of the President of the United States.
What’s in the Basement of the West Wing?
The main floor of the West Wing has some of the most visible rooms of the executive branch. There’s the Oval Office, Roosevelt Room, Press Briefing Room, and Cabinet Room.
Just one story below, the West Wing’s basement has additional seats of power.
The White House Situation Room is a command center that acts as a communication and decision-making hub for critical security issues. It’s staffed around the clock by personnel from the intelligence community, Homeland Security, and the U.S. military. The Situation Room may be in the basement, but it’s arguably one of the most important rooms in the world.
The Sit Room was first established in 1961 after President John F. Kennedy was frustrated by the inability to access real-time intelligence during the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Currently, the 5,000-square-foot basement complex includes several conference rooms and offices. The antique mahogany paneling was removed during the 2006-07 renovations and additional video conferencing screens were added. The Sit Room also has ceiling sensors that can detect unauthorized cellular communication.
The White House Mess Hall is also in the basement of the West Wing. This cafeteria and dining room is a part of the Presidential Food Service and is run by the U.S. Navy.
It’s not open to the public, but it’s possible to get an invitation to dine at the Mess. A sample lunch menu includes a range of PB&J sandwiches to beef filet. It even has a Yelp page.
There are also offices for the Secret Service and Homeland Security. There’s a stairwell leading up to the cabana next to the outdoor swimming pool. This accessway was added by President Gerald Ford so the First Family could go swimming without having to cross the south lawn.
Plus, there are additional Press Corps offices in the basement. The ground floor cubicles connect to additional press office space on the first floor. However, even a building as well maintained as the White House can have water problems. In 2019, the White House basement started to flood underneath the cubicle desks. After cleanup and repairs, we hope they installed a basement dehumidifier to prevent mold.
What’s in the Basement of the East Wing?
For security reasons, we don’t know the exact layout of the East Wing basement. However, we do have some historical information about how it is used. Interestingly, the entire East Wing was built to obscure what’s in the basement.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt built an underground bomb shelter as a precaution during WWII. It was several stories below ground and had a series of concrete rooms with basic furnishings such as a cot and desk. Reportedly, Roosevelt toured the room once and never returned to it.
The president’s bunker is still below the East Wing, and now, it’s known as PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center). After the September 11 attacks, First Lady Laura Bush described her evacuation to PEOC. She said that it had steel doors that created an airtight seal. The underground hallways had old tile floors, exposed pipes, and mechanical equipment. This led to windowless conference rooms.
Following a Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. National Archives released a series of photos of PEOC where leaders sheltered on 9/11. The nondescript space had television screens, communication tools, and artificial skylights.
What’s in the Basement of the White House Residence?
Because the White House sits on a hill, the basement level of the White House Residence is on the same plane as the main floor of the East Wing and West Wing. Early accounts reveal that the basement wasn’t always a pleasant space. In 1891, an electrician said, “The floor was covered with damp and slimy brick; dust webs were everywhere… Everything was black and dirty.”
Early basement renovations began under President Theodore Roosevelt, and today, the basement of the President’s house is nice enough to host diplomats and dry enough to store books. They must have gotten some waterproofing experts to help with their basement renovations.
Today, the basement includes multipurpose rooms including the Map Room, Library, China Room, Vermeil Room, and the Diplomatic Reception Room. The basement also has the main White House Kitchen, pantry, chocolate shop, and cold storage. There’s also a doctor’s office and housekeeper’s office.
On the far side of the basement, there are some rooms that you may wish were in your home’s basement.
There’s the White House bowling alley that was added by President Richard Nixon in 1969. He and his wife were avid bowlers, and a single-lane alley was built below the driveway that leads to the North Portico. However, this wasn’t the first bowling alley. President Harry S. Truman had one below the West Wing in 1947, but the space later became the Situation Room.
The basement also has the White House Carpenter’s Shop, which is staffed with a team of engineers, woodworkers, and restoration professionals. There’s also the White House Flower Shop, which provides the flower arrangements for the building, including centerpieces, office displays, and bouquets for state functions.
Are there Really Underground Tunnels to the White House Basement?
Yes, we know there are at least two tunnel systems below the White House.
The oldest tunnel connects the White House to the Treasury Building. This 761-foot tunnel was built in 1941 as an evacuation method. The tunnel originates in the sub-basement of the East Wing, and then it zig-zags underground to the adjacent Treasury building. The tunnel is only seven feet tall and 10 feet wide.
This tunnel is not just a hidden way to escape. It was an effort to use the massive structure of the Treasury Building as a tactical advantage in the event of an attack. While the foundation of the White House is relatively shallow, the Treasury Building has a deep foundation made of granite. Located two stories below the cash room, a steel bank door leads to a 10-room presidential suite.
A second White House tunnel connects the Oval Office to the East Wing. This 150-foot tunnel provides a secure way for the President to access PEOC in the basement of the East Wing, or once in the East Wing, the President can evacuate to the Treasury Building.
How are you using your home’s basement? Find out how the basement waterproofing experts at Groundworks can help you strengthen your home’s structure and fix moisture issues that are preventing your basement from being a livable space.