Presidents, secret visitors, and shadow confidants have had a back door in and out of the White House since the 1940s through a little-known passage opening on H Street. The circuitous route passes through one closed-off alleyway, two subterranean tunnels and finally spills out in the White House basement. This account is based on archival newspaper reports from the early 20th century, when the tunnels were a matter of public architectural interest, long before security paranoia cut off the flow of juicy information.
Two blocks away from the executive residence on H Street, there’s one alley unlike the others, with a ram-proof vehicle gate and a bulletproof Secret Service kiosk discreetly set into the wall. The narrow enclosed alley leads down the block, past the towering brick Federal Claims Courthouse, before ending in an unassuming doorway at the rear of the Treasury Department’s annex on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Treasury Annex (officially known as the Freedman’s Bank since 2016) was built in 1919 to house the Internal Revenue Bureau, and local builders Irwin & Leighton won the contract to dig a tunnel to connect with Department headquarters across the street. The sources are unclear on the purpose of the underground passage, but it was likely to protect cash-carrying Treasury employees from armed robbery. Or perhaps it was a byproduct of Washington’s dismal weather, as was the case with the Capitol Hill pedestrian tunnels, we can’t say for sure.
The final segment of the White House secret entrance came to be as a side effect of World War II security enhancements. Fearing that an aerial attack on the creaky old White House would leave FDR dead beneath a pile of rubble, an inclined tunnel was hurriedly excavated in 1941 leading from the East Wing over to Treasury Department headquarters. Here, a sturdy granite vault was carpeted, equipped with furniture, and converted into the first Presidential bomb shelter. FDR visited only once and hated the place. (This tunnel was considered a wartime secret by the press until Republican Congressman Clare E. Hoffman complained about its expense in open House debate, after which it was considered fair game.)
Secret tunnels leading to the White House are a common narrative trope but generally lack in specificity or credibility. With the H Street entrance, as with many things in Washington, the truth is generally more mundane than sinister. It is the coincidental byproduct of an old pedestrian tunnel and underground wheelchair ramp. The Federal Government’s default modes of bureaucratic inertia and historical preservation usually conspire to abandon this kind of thing in place, rather than demolish it. Chances are that the passageways are still down there to this day.