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Home Improvement at the White House: $376 Million and 4 Years

May 21 (Bloomberg) -- After getting settled in a new house, who doesn’t want to take on a home improvement project?

Parts of the White House have gotten a little creaky and out-of-date since the last overhaul five decades ago, so starting tomorrow the jackhammers and backhoes will be fired up to begin a four-year, $376 million project to improve the infrastructure in the East and West Wings.

“This is the biggest upgrade since the complete renovation of the executive mansion in the Truman era,” said Bob Peck, public buildings commissioner of the General Services Administration, the agency that manages federal facilities.

President Barack Obama, who took over the White House 16 months ago and often tells audiences about the advantages of having a “nice home office,” won’t have to move his family out, as President Harry Truman and first lady Bess Truman did.

Still, as with any renovation, there will be noise and dust and workers in the hallways. Many top White House aides will lose coveted parking spaces on West Executive Drive, which will be used by heavy machinery and construction vehicles.

It also will mar the background for tourists who gather each day on the sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue to take photographs of the North Portico and force a move by the television correspondents who usually broadcast from the fringe of the North Lawn. Much of the work involves tearing up the lawn.

Workers will be replacing decades-old heating, cooling, electrical and fire-alarm equipment and unspecified security systems.

To minimize disruptions to the Obamas -- as well as to the television networks -- construction work will be confined to the hours between 7:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m., Peck said.

Moving Inside

When the work goes inside the two wings, “we’re going to be moving some people around,” he said.

The West Wing, built in 1902, houses the Oval Office, the vice president’s office, the Cabinet Room, the Situation Room, and various offices for top presidential aides.

The East Wing, added in 1942, is occupied mostly by the first lady and her staff, the White House military office and the Secret Service, and includes the movie theater.

The price tag is more than 100 times the total cost of building the White House in the 1790s. Congress approved funding for the project in 2008 after some of the systems in the White House were deemed to be approaching the end of their “reliable productivity.”

“There have been some service interruptions,” Peck said. “And we can’t afford to have that.”

Blair House

The Truman-era renovation lasted from 1948 to 1952 and involved a complete rebuilding of the main structure from the inside out. Truman moved into Blair House, the presidential guest quarters located across Pennsylvania Avenue

As trucks and heavy machinery begin arriving at the White House, Peck is keeping his fingers crossed.

While the GSA has said the project would take four years, they are hedging their bets in case “unforeseen conditions” arise, Peck said. He’s already put on standby “lots of experts,” including archeologists as well as emergency-response crews.

“There can’t be any ‘oopses’ in a project like this,” Peck said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Edwin Chen in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Tackett in Washington at

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