The White House Situation Room Got a Much-Needed Makeover: See the Before and After Photos

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One of the most important rooms in the world — where presidents dealt with the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11 fallout and raid on Osama bin Laden — became $50 million more functional in late 2023

<p>Adam Schultz/The White House via Getty</p> President Joe Biden meets with national security officials in the newly renovated Situation Room on April 13, 2024

Adam Schultz/The White House via Getty

President Joe Biden meets with national security officials in the newly renovated Situation Room on April 13, 2024

Months ago, the White House completed its periodic revamp of one of the most important meeting spaces in the world: the Situation Room. Details of the $50 million renovation were made public, revealing a new backdrop where commanders-in-chief will carry out history-making work.

The president's intelligence hub is located on the ground floor of the West Wing — one level beneath the Oval Office. Despite its name, the Situation Room is not actually a single room: it's a basement complex, featuring three secure conference rooms and numerous work stations, where world happenings are monitored, classified briefings occur and the president's top security officials conduct business.

The command center is staffed around the clock by carefully vetted personnel from across the federal government, each of them ready to run intel up the chain in the event of an emerging crisis.

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<p>Pete Souza/The White House via Getty</p> A famous Situation Room photo, capturing President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials as they monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty

A famous Situation Room photo, capturing President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials as they monitor the raid on Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011

Installed under President John F. Kennedy and modified several times since, the increasingly impressive Situation Room has played host to countless pivotal conversations with global ramifications.

It's where Kennedy managed the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon B. Johnson spent sleepless nights monitoring the Vietnam War, George W. Bush officials dealt with the fallout of 9/11, Barack Obama carried out the lethal Osama bin Laden raid, and Donald Trump's chief of staff reportedly fired controversial aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.

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Even as it's housed the most sensitive intelligence in the world, the Situation Room hasn't always looked like the glamorous crisis center you'd expect. In several iterations prior to the latest upgrade, it looked remarkably bland and was repeatedly described by White House staffers as uncomfortable.

Here's how the once-modest White House Situation Room has evolved over the years, including what's changed under the Biden administration.

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The First Situation Room

<p>Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston</p> The first White House Situation Room, created under President John F. Kennedy, in February 1962

Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

The first White House Situation Room, created under President John F. Kennedy, in February 1962

Though the idea of installing a secure communications site in the White House was first proposed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it was President John F. Kennedy who made it happen. He felt passionate about the project after the failures of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba were partly attributed to the administration operating on outdated information.

As the Cold War continued to unfold, Kennedy rededicated an old bowling alley in the West Wing to become the new crisis management center. Alternate names that had been floated for the Situation Room included the "Nerve Center" and "Executive Coordination Center," George Stephanopoulos writes in The Situation Room: The Inside Story of Presidents in Crisis.

<p>Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston</p> A desk near the main Situation Room meeting area, pictured in February 1962

Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

A desk near the main Situation Room meeting area, pictured in February 1962

The inaugural Situation Room was wholly unimpressive by today's standards, but historic nonetheless. With slight upgrades here and there, the space was used by nine sitting presidents, from Kennedy to Bush Jr.

The Reagan Administration

<p>Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)</p> President Ronald Reagan hosts a Situation Room meeting with the National Security Council in 1985

Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

President Ronald Reagan hosts a Situation Room meeting with the National Security Council in 1985

In an archival photo from 1985, President Ronald Reagan meets with the National Security Council to discuss the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.

Here, the classic mahogany square paneling is visible on the conference room walls, and the leaders enjoyed newer furnishings than what Kennedy had. Behind Reagan, the curtains are separated to display a poster of the United Kingdom's wartime leader Winston Churchill, including his famous quote, "Let us go forward together."

When the inaugural Situation Room, in service from 1961 to 2006, was removed to make way for a more modern iteration, parts of the original complex were reinstalled in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, where it is now used for trainings and education.

The Bush Renovation

<p>AP Photo/Eric Draper, White House</p> President George W. Bush meets with his national security team in the original Situation Room on March 10, 2006, shortly before major renovations took place

AP Photo/Eric Draper, White House

President George W. Bush meets with his national security team in the original Situation Room on March 10, 2006, shortly before major renovations took place

President George W. Bush oversaw the first major Situation Room renovation, when the initial conference room created by Kennedy was removed from the complex, along with other key areas.

In the photo above, Bush holds a March 2006 meeting with his national security team to talk about the latest developments in Iraq. Soon after, the complex underwent a disruptive nine months of construction.

<p>AP Photo/White House, Kimberlee Hewitt</p> The crowded Situation Room office area mid-renovations in December 2006

AP Photo/White House, Kimberlee Hewitt

The crowded Situation Room office area mid-renovations in December 2006

As The Washington Post reported in December 2006, when the Bush-era revamp was half complete, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once described the Situation Room as "uncomfortable, unaesthetic and essentially oppressive."

The 2006-2007 updates took several years of planning, beginning even before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. To make the space more functional and conducive to housing cutting-edge technologies, the complex was stripped down in its entirety till there were only bricks and bare floors. That also meant removing the antique mahogany walls.

<p>Eric Draper/White House via Getty </p> President George W. Bush debuts the new White House Situation Room on May 17, 2007, via a meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair

Eric Draper/White House via Getty

President George W. Bush debuts the new White House Situation Room on May 17, 2007, via a meeting with U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair

On May 17, 2007, Bush debuted the new Situation Room, which came with ceiling sensors to detect bugged mobile devices, additional secure video areas, a direct feed to Air Force One and new furnishings. The total cost of the project was not disclosed.

Just as Reagan's library inherited some of the original Situation Room structure when it was removed from the White House, Bush's official presidential library received other portions to preserve and use for education.

The Biden Refresh

<p>Adam Schultz/The White House</p> President Joe Biden meets with his national security team in the White House Situation Room after its 2023 revamp

Adam Schultz/The White House

President Joe Biden meets with his national security team in the White House Situation Room after its 2023 revamp

Due to rapid technological advances and new cybersecurity threats since the Bush-era renovations — plus worn furniture and an outdated aesthetic — the White House Situation Room was ready for upgrades by the time Joe Biden began his presidency.

White House staffers were asked for input on what changes should be made during the project. The Biden administration disclosed that the yearlong remodel, which was completed in September 2023, costed $50 million.

<p>The White House/Carlos Fyfe</p> The Situation Room's new center of operations, where security personnel monitor world events and gather intelligence

The White House/Carlos Fyfe

The Situation Room's new center of operations, where security personnel monitor world events and gather intelligence

On a functionality level, the Situation Room was fitted with new computers and monitors, faster servers, updated lighting, and higher-level audio equipment — including new overhead speakers in the ceiling. Digital clocks on the wall display the time zones of the places being discussed in meetings, as well as the time zone the president is in.

Marc Gustafson, the Situation Room director, told CNN that the design was "a marriage of traditional and modern," returning to the original mahogany aesthetic made from sustainably harvested wood panels. The presidential seal was enlarged at the request of White House photographers, and other top officials' seals can now be swapped in to match the person sitting at the head of the table.

<p>Adam Schultz/The White House</p> President Joe Biden receives his daily briefing in the revamped Situation Room on Jan. 29, 2024

Adam Schultz/The White House

President Joe Biden receives his daily briefing in the revamped Situation Room on Jan. 29, 2024

The primary conference room — fitted with large monitors and a table with 13 chairs — is now called the Kennedy Room, in honor of JFK's vision for the complex.

It can better handle classified feeds from a variety of sources, to avoid another issue like what happened during the Osama bin Laden raid, when President Obama and several officials were crammed in a side room to monitor the operation because it's the only place where they could get the video to display. (The Obama library received parts of the Bush-era Situation Room in honor of what he accomplished there.)

When a future president inherits the next Situation Room refresh, they will have an easier time getting it done, thanks to the modular wall design that offers easier access to the equipment within. And until then, national security officials can enjoy a fully functioning space that looks straight from the movies.

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