Not Your Average Basement: The White House Has Tunnels, a Swimming Pool, and a Flower Shop

published Jan 20, 2021
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While it may not have a dusty treadmill and boxes of your childhood photos like your own basement, the White House’s lower level is filled with history and intrigue. While spots like the Oval Office and Roosevelt Room are obviously the most well-known locations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, some of the most fascinating locations on-site are actually below ground.

In honor of Inauguration Day, Groundworks Companies took a look at some of the most mysterious and unexpected (yes, there’s a chocolate shop) spaces in the White House basement.

The Situation Room, which serves as a command center for major security issues, is perhaps the most famous space in the White House’s lower level. It’s where you’ll find employees from the intelligence community, Homeland Security, and the U.S. military making important decisions around the clock, as anyone who has watched a few too many episodes of “The West Wing” is familiar with. The space was first created by then-National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy wanted access to real-time intelligence during the Bay of Pigs invasion.

“They had a voracious appetite for information, particularly President Kennedy,” said Jeff Harley, then the Situation Room’s former deputy director, in a video filmed during the Obama administration. “They felt the need to create a communication center here within the White House.”

The space underwent a major renovation in 2007, greatly expanding both the square footage and the capabilities of the room by going from one to three conference rooms. Now, the space hosts about 25 conferences a day with around 250 guests. 

Another interesting component of the Situation Room is the “superman tubes,” which serve as makeshift phone booths. They each feature regular telephones, as well as high-tech ones with “top secret telephone capability.” On the watch floor, which serves as a communications hub, three daily reports for the president are written and distributed. There’s also the “surge room” where personnel gather in times of crisis. 

But of course, the lower level of the White House goes far beyond just the Situation Room. It’s also home to additional Press Corps offices, offices for the Secret Service and Homeland Security, as well as the White House Mess Hall, which is run by the U.S. Navy, and even has its own Yelp page. (Reviews are mixed, unfortunately.) A stairwell, which was added by President Gerald Ford so the First Family could go swimming without having to cross the south lawn, leads up to a cabana next to the outdoor swimming pool. 

The East Wing’s basement is a little less publicly detailed due to security reasons, but there is some interesting historical information out there. Back in 1942 during WWII, President Franklin D. Roosevelt built an underground bomb shelter that was several stories below ground. The concrete rooms have basic accommodations, like a cot and a desk. While FDR toured the space once, he never returned. After 9/11, First Lady Laura Bush entered the PEOC (Presidential Emergency Operations Center), and later described the space as having steel doors that created an airtight seal. Following a Freedom of Information Act request, the U.S. National Archives released a series of photos of PEOC.

There are a variety of other interesting spaces in the lower level, including multipurpose venues like the Map Room, Library, China Room, Vermeil Room, and the Diplomatic Reception Room. It’s also home to the main White House Kitchen, a doctor’s office, and even a chocolate shop. Of course, don’t forget the White House bowling alley below the driveway that leads to the North Portico, added by avid bowler President Nixon in 1969. (President Truman had one too, but that was later made into the Situation Room.) You’ll also find the carpenter’s shop, and the flower shop. 

There are also two systems of underground tunnels below the White House. The oldest one, a 761-foot tunnel that was built in 1941, was created as an evacuation method. Just seven feet tall and 10 feet wide, it leads to the Treasury Building. A second tunnel connects the Oval Office to the East Wing through a 150-foot passageway for the President to access PEOC in the basement of the East Wing, or to evacuate to the Treasury Building if already in the East Wing.

While it’s no secret there’s major change afoot above ground in the White House, it will be interesting to see if the Biden/Harris administration keeps things the same underground as well.