FDR’s White House Swimming Pool Hides Beneath Press Briefing Room

The old White House swimming pool pictured in 1962, now the Press Briefing Room. (Image: JFK Presidential Library. The old White House swimming pool, 1962)

Watching the White House Press Secretary stand at a podium while fielding questions from journalists is a daily occurrence on our TV screens. But did you know that beneath the fake floor of the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room lay a disused 50-foot-long swimming pool, where presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy enjoyed a daily dip throughout their administrations?

President Barack Obama confronts college reporters in the White House Press Briefing Room. (Image: Pete Souza. The White House Press Briefing Room today)

The White House swimming pool was installed in 1933, thanks to a New York Daily News fundraising campaign in aid of President Roosevelt, a New Yorker who suffered from debilitating polio. FDR regularly swam in therapy pools around his native city, enjoying the exercise that swimming afforded him. The pool was built into the old laundry rooms in the west gallery between the White House and the West Wing.

The White House swimming pool was built for wheelchair-confined FDR but became the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room during President Nixon's administration. (Image: JFK Presidential Library)

Under the heading “From Swimming Pool to Press Pool”, The White House Museum writes: “Arched ceilings and high rows of half-mooned windows surrounded the rectangular pool. French doors opened into the Rose Garden. The president’s pool was a modern-day showcase of technology, featuring underwater lighting, sterilizers and the latest gadgets. For several years, he used it multiple times a day. Harry Truman swam in it frequently—with his glasses on.”

Socks the cat at the podium in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room. (Image: US National Archives. Socks the cat at the podium)

When JFK took office, the White House swimming pool was decorated with a huge mural by Bernard Lamotte of a Caribbean scene featuring a calm sea and sailboats. By the time Lyndon Johnson was in office, the walls were hung with bathing suits of all sizes so that any guest who fancied a swim could dive in.

(Images: Julie Mason. The tiled swimming pool still exists beneath the trap door)

Forty years after it was built, President Richard Nixon – who preferred bowling to swimming – decided to convert the old White House swimming pool into an auditorium, to accommodate advancing technology and the increasing demand for television news. Atlas Obscura writes that “up until this point there was no space officially designed for press briefings; interviews used to occur throughout the hallways and working offices of the White House.”

Still in use: the now-hidden White House swimming pool in 1948 (Image: Truman Library. the hidden swimming pool in 1948)

As a result, Nixon drained the pool and had a floor installed over the top, though a hatch near the podium allowed access to this hidden relic of White House history. The abandoned swimming pool still very much exists, and has proved a popular offbeat attraction on tours of the building. Nowadays, a small staircase has replaced the hatch.

Bernard Lamotte paints a mural on the walls of the old White House swimming pool, 1962 (Image: Kennedy Library. Bernard Lamotte and his mural, 1962)

Those lucky enough to venture down will find the old White House swimming pool full of computer servers and other communications equipment. Atlas Obscura even reports that, “after decades, it still smells like chlorine.”

Read Next: 12 Abandoned Lidos & Paddling Pools of the UK

 

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