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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

White House gets a face lift as Trump heads off on holiday

No sooner was Air Force One on the way to New Jersey, than the Oval Office was cleared of its furniture and the work of updating the White House could begin

US President Donald Trump made a speech decertifying the Iran nuclear deal. Alex Brandon/ AP Photo.
US President Donald Trump made a speech decertifying the Iran nuclear deal. Alex Brandon/ AP Photo.

As the US president moved out, the packers and the renovators moved in.

No sooner was Air Force One on the way to New Jersey at the start of Donald Trump’s 17-day working vacation, than the Oval Office was cleared of its furniture and the work of updating the White House could begin.

Officials relocated on Friday last week to an office block next door and even the famous Resolute Desk was carried out.

Officially, the US$3.4 million (Dh12.5m) West Wing renovations are part of a long-planned upgrade of heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, as well as a chance for a bit of TLC in the form of paint and carpets.

But the fraying state of the two centuries-old building has been the butt of jokes for years.

Even Mr Trump was caught recently complaining about its shabbiness to golfers at his New Jersey course.

“The White House is a real dump,” he told them, according to Golf.com, although Mr Trump denies saying any such thing. (A White House official later told CNN that although the president is impressed with the private quarters, he has commented frequently on the poor condition of the West Wing.)

When former president Barack Obama was filmed during an interview swatting a fly, even the normally sombre New York Times could not resist a jokey headline: What has 132 rooms and flies?

Things have got even worse in the past fortnight. Heavy downpours in Washington caused leaks — of the sort that cannot be investigated by the attorney general — in the ceiling above one of the press areas, forcing reporters to put waste paper bins in strategic locations.

Reed Galen, who worked for former president George W Bush during his first term, said such stories were nothing new. Maintenance staff were “running to stand still” most of the time.

“I didn’t see rain leaking through the ceiling but at the same time it doesn’t particularly surprise me,” he said.

Summer updates are all part of the usual schedule, he added, and a reflection of the building’s age.

The White House was built in the 1790s, burnt down by the British in 1814 and reconstructed in 1817.

Its architects had no idea of the way the presidency would grow and so the West Wing was added by Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in 1902. Today it houses the Oval Office, Cabinet Room and Situation Room as well as a press office and space for journalists who work in the White House.

The result is a crowded warren of corridors, offices and cubby holes where the constant buzz of political life means there is rarely any downtime to make repairs.

“In a building that is not only the president’s home but also an office building, a museum, it plays a lot of roles, and in that capacity needs a lot of work,” said Mr Galen.

“I don’t know how many thousands of visitors go through for East Wing tours, I don’t know how many visitors walk in and out for meetings every day, but there’s a lot of foot traffic, a lot of wear and tear.”

The latest renovations will include repairing the ceiling leaks, a power wash and rebuilding staircases.

The priority is to replace the 27-year-old system that controls the air temperature inside the West Wing, which is “well past its life cycle and will fail in the near future without intervention”, according to the General Services Administration which is responsible for maintenance.

Lindsay Walters, the deputy White House press secretary, said the system's 24/7, 365-day use meant engineers estimated it was the equivalent of one installed 81 years ago.

"We all need to be relocated out of the West Wing due to these renovations that should have taken place before,” she said.

“And we're at a position that we're now at a dire need, and they either need to be repaired or replaced. And it's not something that can go on while we're still occupying the West Wing."

The Navy Mess kitchen also will be overhauled with cosmetic touch-ups made throughout, including fresh paint, carpet and curtains.

And at the back of the building, the South Portico steps will get a long overdue update. They have not been touched since 1952, when they were rebuilt during president Harry Truman’s renovations.