Since it was first occupied in 1800, the White House has sheltered 43 Presidents, their families and countless staffers. And while we often hear of its oval office and emergency bunkers, the bedroom gets little love. And that's a shame because there are some strange things to know about 1600 Pennsylvania's master bedroom and the men who've resided there.
For instance, did you know that multiple presidents have slept in the same bed? Or that one actually preferred sleeping on the roof? Or that another had undiagnosed sleep apnea?
We didn’t either. These facts come courtesy of William Bushong, chief historian of the White House Historical Association. He filled us in on some little known secrets about the building's sleep quarters, and a few little known secrets about the sleeping habits of some of history’s most powerful men.
1. The President’s Bedroom is Much Bigger Than Yours. Since John Adams, the first president to occupy the White House, most have opted to sleep in the second floor suite, which consists of a bedroom, a living room, a dressing room and two bathrooms. “It takes up about a quarter of the second floor living space,” Bushong tells us. “The views out the windows are absolutely spectacular, out across the Potomac River down to the Jefferson Memorial."Nowadays, the President and First Lady receive $100,000 from Congress to make needed improvements during their administration, which they can use to fix up the bedroom. We may never know what the Obamas did with that money — the Obamas have instituted a “no-press” policy on the second floor of the White House, and no photos of the Master Bedroom have been released in years.
2. Multiple Commander-in-Chiefs Have Slept in the Same Bed. No, not like that. Benjamin Harrison, Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt all slept in the historic Lincoln Bed, the eight-foot-long, six-foot-wide rosewood bed purchased by Mary Todd Lincoln that still resides in the White House.
Funny enough, our 16th president never actually slept in his titular resting place.
“Many people hear ‘Lincoln Bed’ and think Lincoln slept in it,” Bushong says of the structure, which has resided in eight different rooms in the White House. “He didn’t.”
This may be because his son Willie died of typhoid in that bed in 1862. But maybe it was due to the fact that Lincoln, who stood 6’4,” required a larger bed to suit his wingspan. Either way, Mary Todd probably wasn’t too crazy about the whole thing.
3. President Harrison Installed a Crown Over His Bed. Benjamin Harrison never really gets much recognition (the McKinley Tariff and Sherman Antitrust Act aren’t really History 101 material). But even if his presidency isn’t exactly memorable, the 23rd President's bedroom was: Along with First Lady Caroline Scott, he kept the most lavish master bedroom of any president in history.
“They went really over-the-top,” Bushong says. “They had some of the most incredible Victorian design. They built this elaborate canopy over the Lincoln Bed with purple drapes that came down on either side, full-length and a crown over the bed.”
Depending on the time, different design influences have made their way into the Master Bedroom, including Asian, neo-classical and British. Other notable designs? William and Ida McKinley purchased brass beds because they thought it would help prevent bed bugs while First Lady Mamie Eisenhower decorated the bedroom entirely in pink.
4. One President Slept on the Roof. Accoring to Bushong, our 27th and most mustachioed president, William Howard Taft, built a “sleeping porch” on the roof of the White House in order to beat the heat. “It was just a framed, screened-in structure that was on the roof of the house,” Bushong says. “He’s the only president I know of that used it.”
5. The Obamas Have Been Woken By the Sounds of Ghosts. The White House is well-documented as one of the most haunted places in the country, and several presidents, First Ladies, children and visiting guests have all reported being woken up by ghostly specters and noises while sleeping in the rooms on the second floor.
In her first few months as First Lady, Mrs. Obama even told a group of young children that she and the President were woken up by the sound of strange noises coming down the hall. When they went to investigate, they found nothing.
6. Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft Both Had Sleep Apnea. It’s well known that President Lincoln suffered from stress-induced insomnia during the Civil War. But it’s suspected that some of our more protuberant presidents such as Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft likely suffered from sleep apnea.
“Even though nobody’s documented it, we can look at historical diaries and letters [that documented] things like President Taft falling asleep at the table one day while playing cards,” Bushong says. “So it’s sort of like, you put two and two together. He’s overweight, he’s falling asleep during the day, so he probably had sleep apnea. That’s the conclusion folks jump to.”
And while many presidents have had their share of restless evenings (we doubt JFK slept soundly during the Cuban Missile Crisis) Bushong says Richard Nixon had a tendency to wake up in the middle of the night and start working on things. Secret things, no doubt.