WASHINGTON -- The capital's French city planner called the great stone house "The Palace." For 50 years the government more modestly called it "The President's House." And for the next half century it was "The Executive Mansion."
But in the fall of 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, sweeping into office like a fresh breeze, officially gave the old house the name Americans had called it almost since the first coat of whitewash was slapped on its sandstone walls in 1798.
He called it "The White House."
Historian William Seale says that for Roosevelt, taking office after the assassination of William McKinley, the Executive Mansion title seemed to symbolize a stodgy, inefficient presidential office "ridden with layers of tradition stacked atop temporary procedures."
"One of his earliest orders, given before McKinley's funeral flowers had wilted, was to change the name," Seale writes. "Things were to be different now."
On Oct. 17, 1901, the administration notified Cabinet members and agency heads that the president wished "to change the headings or datelines of all official papers and documents requiring his signature, from "Executive Mansion" to "White House."
It was far from the last change Roosevelt would make at the White House. But first he scrapped plans drafted in earlier administrations to move the house elsewhere or to expand it beyond recognition.
Beginning in 1902, Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, threw out the dark and bulky trappings that had accumulated during the Victorian era. They acted to make the White House interior light, airy, and elegant, more in keeping with the intentions of its 18th century builders.
First occupied by President John Adams in 1800, the house was called "The President's House" until 1850, when the name Executive Mansion started appearing on documents.
The house became white as early as 1798 when a coat of whitewash was brushed on to protect the vulnerable sandstone against winter freezes.
There is a Washington myth that people didn't start calling the house the White House until it was painted white to conceal the scorch marks left when the British burned it to its walls in 1814.
Not so, says the office of White House curator Betty Monkman. Her staff has uncovered many references to "the White House" well before the British marched in.
On March 18, 1812, for example, a Massachusetts congressman wrote his wife: "There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's."