The White House has seen many exciting events, but perhaps the most dramatic occurred on August 24, 1814, during in the War of 1812 while James Madison was President. British troops stormed Washington DC and set fire to the White House and several other buildings. The President was away, and Dolley Madison was forced to flee, saving only important state papers, the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, and a few family possessions. Contrary to the story favored by President Clinton, the White House was not burned to the ground -- there was extensive interior and roof damage, but a thunderstorm extinguished the blaze, leaving the stone exterior walls and interior brick walls standing. Three years of reconstruction were needed before it could again be used as a presidential residence. A print of the White House shortly after the fire is at http://www.jmu.edu/madison/whiteburns.htm.
An Internet site dedicated to the history of the White House is provided by the White House Historical Association at http://www.whitehousehistory.org, and a history site designed for kids by the White House Media Office can be found at http://www.whitehouse.gov/WH/kids/html/pre_his.html. An account of the White House birthday party is at http://www.newsday.com/ap/topnews/ap872.htm.
There are numerous other Internet sites on White House history -- even one on its plumbing (http://www.theplumber.com/white.html) -- and a sample of links can be found at http://www.google.com/search?as_qt=w&as_q=white+house+history. The US National Park Service site for the White House is at http://www.nps.gov/whho/. White House tour info is available at http://www.nps.gov/whho/pphtml/facilities.html, a map of the immediate White House area is at http://www.nps.gov/whho/whtours/map.htm, and the Park Service tour brochure is on line at http://www.techtourswashington.com/white_house_brochure.htm.
Trivia question: Why is the White House white?
The answer, from the White House Historical Association: It has nothing to do with the burning of the house by the British in 1814, although every schoolchild is likely to have heard the story that way. The building was first made white with lime-based whitewash in 1798, when its walls were finished, simply as a means of protecting the porous stone from freezing. Why the house was subsequently painted is not known. Perhaps presidents objected to the dirty look as the whitewash wore away. The house acquired its nickname early on. Congressman Abijah Bigelow wrote to a colleague on March 18, 1812 (three months before the United States entered war with England): "There is much trouble at the White House, as we call it, I mean the President's" (quoted in W. B. Bryan, "The Name White House," Records of the Columbia Historical Society 34-35 : 308). The name, though in common use, remained a nickname until September 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official.