George Washington wanted America's presidents to live in a building that would "suit the circumstances" of the new nation.
In later years, as the country grew, the "President's House" could grow with it, he wrote.
The history of the White House officially began 200 years ago this week, when the cornerstone was laid on Oct. 13, 1792.
Since then, the number of rooms at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has more than doubled _ from 60 to more than 130. It's been built, rebuilt and redecorated many times.
But despite the wear and tear of 39 presidents, millions of visitors and a fire set by the British on Aug. 24, 1814, the essence of the house remains the same.
"George Washington might squint, but he'd recognize it," said former White House historian William Seale, who has written a history of the house.
"The White House is a timeless place, a sort of a shorthand for the presidency," Seale said. "It's the president's house _ the house where he lives, the house where he sleeps, the house where he eats, the house where he worries. People are endlessly fascinated."
Irish-born architect James Hoban won a national contest to design the house and built it out of off-white sandstone from Virginia.
But workers whitewashed the stone to protect it before the building was finished, and by the 1820s, most people knew it as the White House. Theodore Roosevelt made the name official in 1901.
Washington is the only president who never lived there. One president _ Grover Cleveland _ was married there. Two _ William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor _ died there.
John Adams was the first to move in, and the house wasn't finished when he did. Only six rooms were plastered, and the grounds were covered with builders' shacks and garbage.
Abigail Adams used the uncompleted East Room to dry the family laundry.
But Adams still took time out on his first night there to write a now-famous prayer for its future.
"I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but honest and wise men ever rule under this roof!" he wrote on Nov. 2, 1800.
Being a president isn't easy, and the stress of the job has often colored descriptions of the house. William Howard Taft said it was "the loneliest place in the world." Abraham Lincoln called it "this damned old house." To Harry S. Truman, it was "a glamorous prison."