When the U.S. military first considered building a presidential bomb shelter during World War II, the last place they wanted to put it was in the White House itself. This was a decade before Harry Truman had the place gutted to the bones and rebuilt in steel, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s executive residence was a creaky old fire trap in danger of collapse.
In the event of an aerial attack on Washington, D.C., the plan was to whisk the wheelchair-bound president across the street to the U.S. Treasury.
Within days of the attack on Pearl Harbor, work began on an inclined tunnel leading from the White House to a dry moat surrounding the Treasury. From there it was just a few feet to the Treasury basement, and safety.
The Treasury is built like a tank, with immense granite foundations and sturdy barrel vaulted cellars. One of the abandoned vaults down in the basement was hurriedly transformed into a 10-room apartment suite, complete with a command center and living quarters for the president. A Treasury Historical Association newsletter recalls that “carpeting and wall drapes were installed to make the vault a bit more habitable, and food and water supplies were stockpiled for the President’s and his staff’s use.”
The Treasury shelter was only a temporary affair while more permanent construction was taking place elsewhere on the White House grounds. During 1942, a 1,600-square-foot bunker was nearing completion, with 7-foot-thick walls to protect against 500-pound bombs. To cover construction, a two-story extension was added to the White House directly on top of the bunker. Today that’s the East Wing.
Know Before You Go
The only publicly visible bit of the old Treasury shelter is the tunnel opening in the dry moat, which you can catch a glimpse of from the fence line on Pennsylvania Avenue. Lat/Long marks the spot.
- "The President’s House", William Seale
- "White House, The History of an American Idea", William Seale
- "The Hidden White House", Robert Klara