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August 24, 2020 32 mins

Today’s White House has 132 rooms and 35 bathrooms. But that hasn’t always been the case. It also was not always called the White House, of course, and it has a LOT of history. 

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class, a production
of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast.
I'm Holly Fry and I'm Tracy Vie Wilson. So it
was announced recently that the White House Rose Garden is
getting a renovation. I noticed that announcement that sparked some

discussion online concerned people about the sacredness of the White
House and whether people should mess with it. Um, look,
here's the deal, regardless of who is in the White
House and what you think of their politics. I came
at to this topic because I wanted to reassure everyone that, yes,

of course the White House is iconic. We all recognize
it as the place where the president lives, but it
has also always been in a state of constant change. Um,
Today's White House has a hundred thirty two rooms and
thirty five bathrooms. That was not always case. It was
also not always called the White House, and it has
a lot of history. And while my initial thought was

that talking through the White House's history and all of
its various architectural changes and other things that happened to shift,
it would help people see that change is just part
of this building. As I worked on this episode, which
is now two episodes, it just became so clear that
we really can't look at the White House's history without
also discussing how it relates to slavery in the United States,

um and how completely literally deep seated that has been
in the country's founding. People often speak about the White
House with this great reverence, but we don't really engage
with how deeply entwined it is with enslavement. So today
is going to be the lighter part of it. We're
going to talk first about the general history of the

White House, uh, and then on the next episode we're
going to talk at first about the White House gardens
and their brief history or a brief history of them,
and then we're going to get into some of the
not delightful but really important talk about the role of
enslavement in what has come to be known as the
People's House. So, after the United States became a country

in its own right and George Washington was elected president
in there was a question of where the president should live,
and that was an important question. Both New York City
and Philadelphia hoped to be selected. Both of them designed
and built residences that were intended to appeal to George
Washington's taste, it was really no secret that where the

president made his home would be a boon to the
chosen city. I mean, that's pretty obvious. Washington had been
living in New York, which was the first US capital,
but where the actual federal seat of government would be
permanently was still undecided when Washington was elected, and the
debate over the United States capital's location ended with the

Residents Act in July of seventeen nine. Dracy and I
had discussed beforehand, like, this is a whole thing on
its own that could be an episode, because it is
a lot of wheeling and dealing on the back end
among three men in particular. Yeah, if you've if you've
listened to Hamilton's you've got a glimpse of its Uh,
the whole room where it happened is all about that. Yeah.

And the Acts full name was an Act for establishing
the Temporary and Permanent Seat of the Government of the
United States, And that Act provided for Philadelphia to be
the temporary capital for ten years, and then for a
site on the Potomac, which would of course become Washington,
d C. To become the permanent capital. So George Washington
moved to Philadelphia in sevente He selected Thomas Johnson, David Stewart,

and Daniel Carroll as Federal construction Commissioners. Pierre Charles Lamfont
was selected by Washington to design the new city and
the US Capitol Building and the President's House the President.
The commissioners, and Lafont selected the site where the presidential
residence would be built, and that was to be on
the Potomac. The French engineer and architect Lafont, who had

fought against the British during the Revolutionary War on the
side of the colonies, started work in spring of la
Font was brought on in part to ensure that the
new United States of America would have a capital city
in the Grand European tradition, but built with a modern sensibility.
But tensions really arose when his vision exceeded that of

the government. When la Font dragged his feet on a
map for the sale of the city lots, the city
surveyor made one, Lafont got no credit. This, on top
of the existing tensions with him, led to Lafont leaving
the project. He was encouraged to do so by Thomas Jefferson.
Sometimes you'll see this characterized as laon Font quitting or

getting fired, depending on the source. The bottom line is
this relationship had gotten so bad that both sides wanted
it to end. Some elements of Lafont's design do persist
today in Washington, d C's landscape, particularly the National Mall,
which was initiated by Lafont's desire for there to be
a huge public walk in the city. Yeah, there is

ongoing discussion if you I discovered, if you go down
architectural rabbit holes online of like really how much we
do or do not owe to Lafont in terms of
how the capital is laid out. But law Fall's exit
from this project meant that they needed a new architect
and the solution to finding one was a contest. Uh.
This contest I read in different places being credited as

George Washington's idea. Others said it was Thomas Jefferson's idea.
Again completely different sources will tell you different things, but
we do know that Washington reviewed the finalists submissions and
in the end, Irish architect James Hoban was chosen. Jefferson,
by the way, submitted his own designs anonymously under the
initials a zy. His design was not chosen obviously that

sounds like something he would do. There are so many
moments where I was researching this from like, of course,
that's what Thomas Jefferson did. Yeah. While the project for
the President's mansion was based on the start that la
font had made, Hoban definitely brought his Irish background into
the design. If you've ever seen Lenster House in Dublin,

which is the seat of Ireland's Parliament, it's obvious that
the White House was inspired by it. Hoban staked out
the President's home on July nine, although immediately problems arose
from the switch from one architect to another. Law Fall's design,
which had already uh had the Seller's dug for it,

was much larger than Hoban's, and as a consequence, some
shifting had to be made. So ultimately Hoban deferred to
Washington on the matter, and he asked for the President
to decide where he wanted the north wall of the house,
and then he altered the layout to make that work.
President Washington gave approval to Hoban to increase the footprint
of the plan by in an effort to help deal

with this mismatch in design footprints, but that also meant
that the planned third floor had to be cut from
the design to meet budget restrictions. They carried sandstone from
Aquia Creek, which is forty miles from the build site.
The stone, which is porous and cracks pretty easily when
temperatures drop, was whitewashed to help protect it, and that

led to the nickname White House, although that would not
become the official name for another century. At this point,
it was just called the President's House. Early drawings had
it labeled as the President's Palace. That was one of
the ways that the new government's leaders wanted to kind
of get away from their European roots. Yeah, there was
a quick like no, no, no, no, no, this is

not a monarchy. Were not doing palaces. Um. There were
several other guiding principle to the President's House design that
were insisted upon by George Washington. So one, it had
to have ornamentation too. It had to be built in
such a way that it could later be expanded, so
once again that kind of reiterates that it was always

intended to be a thing that could change. And three,
it had to be built quote upon a scale far
superior to anything in this country. This was a tall
order and to fill it, the areas around the construction
site were turned into Construction Central. Basically, the area was
filled with a sawmill, brickyards, storage buildings, kiln facilities, and

living spaces for the workers and a cook house to
feed them. This was really a makeshift city of workers,
and it came with some less than savory behavior. A
lot of gambling and drunkenness happened in the off hours.
There was a house of quote riotous and disorderly conduct.
Establishment was run by a carpenter's wife named Betsy Donohue,

and she was fined over it, but her business was
not shut down out right, just moved to a privately
owned tract of land. Yeah. They basically were like, we
can't have carousing, and there's definitely the intimation that there
was brothel type activity going on there. We can't have
this on public land, but if you just move this
to this private lot, we'll let you go. Um. Incidentally,

there's an interesting piece of trivia here in that the
cornerstone of the mansion, which was late on October, has
been lost to time during renovations that took place. In
the mid twentieth century, people went looking for it, and
no one could find it. An X ray imaging system
was even brought to the site for the mansion's two
hundredth anniversary in search of this missing cornerstone, but it

was not located. It is considered gone. At this point,
we'll talk about the earliest occupants of the Presidential Mansion
and how the building changed over the years, But first
we will pause for a sponsor break. It took eight

years to get the President's House to a point where
it could be lived in. This was due to some
changes in design that were necessitated along the way, but
also because it was really difficult to get enough labor
for this massive project. We're going to talk about that
some more in the second episode. In eighteen hundred, the
still unfinished Presidential Palace was occupied for the first time

and President John Adams and First Lady Abigail Adams moved in.
That happened in November of that year. John got there
first and wrote to his wife, quote, I pray Heaven
bestow the best of blessings on this house and all
that shall hereafter inhabit. It. May none but honest and
wise men ever rule under this roof. That's the quote

that was later engraved on the State Dining Room fireplace
at the request of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Abigail, for her part,
found the place quite challenging when she arrived. She wrote
to her daughter that none of the apartments were finished,
and then she was forced to hang laundry in the
unfinished great room. She also wrote, quote, the lighting of

the apartments from the kitchen to parlors and chambers is attacks, indeed,
and the fires we are obliged to keep to securists
from daily eggus is another very cheering comfort to assist
us in this great castle and render less attendance. Necessary.
Bells are wholly wanting, not a single one being hung
throughout the whole house, and promises are all you can obtain.

This is so great an inconvenience that I know not
what to do or how to do. I just I
keep thinking about the first lady doing White house laundry
and hanging it up in the great being like I
don't know. I would ask for help, but I can't
find a bell to call them. So. She also included
this rather charming statement in this letter, quote, you must

keep all this to yourself, and when asked how I
like it, say that I write you the situation is beautiful,
which is true. Don't tell anybody I complained about this, Okay.
George Washington had, of course, died the year before, on
December fourteenth of seventeen nine, so he did not live
to see his project completed. And even the adams Is

only spent four months in the new home before Thomas
Jefferson's election in eighteen o one. Those four months were
not especially luxurious. I mean, beyond the hanging of the
laundry in the great room. It was the first winter
for this new residence, and some of the stuff they
needed just had not been worked out, like ensuring that
there was a ready source of firewood, And as was

mentioned in Abigail's letter, not all the rooms were complete.
So the first family had a reception room, a dining room,
a breakfast room, bedrooms for the president's family in an office.
That sounds like plenty, but it's really not that much
for an entire seat of government. Uh. They also endured
just constant construction during all their time there. Yeah, especially

when you considered this is uh maybe the first live workspace. Yeah,
they were supposed to be conducting government business out of
it as well as living there. Jefferson moved into the
President's House in March of eighteen o one, and it was,
of course still not completed. You won't be surprised to
find that he had lots of ideas, and he made

an immediate update to the building in the form of
adding water closets, which were fed from attic cisterns that
collected rainwater. Prior to his insistence on this edition, the
structure had been designed to have outdoor restrooms common for
the time. Yeah new pavilions were also added to the
grounds during the Jefferson presidency. Those were the East and

West colonnades, and they remained part of the design to
this day. Those projects and others during Jefferson's time at
the President's House were overseen by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Latrobe also had the roof of the mansion redone in
sheet iron. Prior to that redo, it leaked terribly because
the original heavy slate that was used on the roof

was wreaking havoc on the supporting walls. It was creating
these gaps that caused leak problems. They also added a
grand staircase and landscaped the grounds. That was part of
why Jefferson wanted those outhouses to be done away with.
He wanted the grounds to be beautiful. The staircase had
been part of the plan from the beginning, but when
Jefferson took office only a temporary set of stairs was

in place, with neither of the planned grand staircases built.
La Troupe didn't have a free hand in this work.
Jefferson had really clear ideas about how he wanted everything done,
and their relationship is a little reminiscent of Andrea Lenotre
and Louis the Fourteenth of France, where Thomas Jefferson had
to have input on everything. Latrobe once wrote of his

boss quote, I am sorry that I am cramped in
this design by his prejudices in favor of the old
French books out of which he fishes everything. Also sounds
very like Thomas Jefferson. Yeah, and I wanted to mention
Lenore and Louis the fourteenth because it seems like the

era of the Louis in France was very much one
that influenced Thomas Jefferson's thinking throughout in terms of design.
And how things should be done. There were drawings made
by Latrobe for collonnated porches to be added to the
Executive mansion. Those never got moved into an active project status.
When James Madison was elected, Latrobe stayed on, but he

shifted his focus from architecture to more interior decoration. He
had not been a fan of Jefferson's proclivity to do
everything in the French style emulating Versailles, and he switched
things over largely to English Regency and Greek Revival decor.
In eighteen fourteen, during the War of eighteen twelve, under
President James Madison's presidency, the President's House was set on

fire by British troops, and they also burned a lot
of the surrounding city. The Presidential Mansion was essentially left
with only its exterior walls when a storm finally put
out the blaze. First Lady Dolly Medisine would only consent,
rather famously to leave the residence once she was certain
that the portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stewart,

had been safely removed. She did not cut it from
the frame and roll it under her arm in a
moment of desperation. As is often told, it was in
fact removed from its frame, and the stretch canvas that
it remained on was taken by carriage to a safe
location in Georgetown. A home called Octagon House became home
to James and Dolly Madison after the fire. That was

a temporary residence, and work was begun to restore the
permanent home of the President, although it took several months
for Congress to approve the funding for the project. While
Benjamin Henry Latrobe had a lot of ideas about how
to rebuild, Madison instead opted to once again tapped James
Hoban to supervise the project, with the intent to restore

it to its original form. The new structure was ready
for occupancy by President James Monroe in eighteen seventeen. Monroe
had conferred with Hoban after he was elected, and he
changed some of the plans that Madison had established for
the rebuild. Hopan also made some changes of his own
based on learnings that he had made during that first build,
and at this point, while still nicknamed the White House,

it was officially referenced as the Executive Mansion in accordance
with James Monroe's wishes. In eighteen twenty four, the South
Portico was added. That's the one that's curved. The squared
off North Portico followed five years later, during Andrew Jackson's presidency.
Also during Jackson's term, the Executive Mansion got a huge update.

Central heating and running water were added to the Holmes abenities.
The East Room was finally completed as well. Yeah, there
were a few different efforts to create a central heating plan.
Uh and I found a few that suggested that the
first successful one was during Jackson's time, although successful should
maybe be in air quotes. When Franklin Pierce was in

office from eighteen to eighteen fifty seven, he had the
orangery built by Andrew Jackson transformed into a greenhouse that
was inspired by Paxton's Crystal Palace. That greenhouse did not
last when his term was up. It was demolished to
make way for a Treasury Building expansion. When Andrew Johnson
became seventeenth president after Lincoln's assassination, a series of changes

began at the Residents. Most of these were decor changes
that were initiated by Johnson's daughter, but the larger scale
change was the construction of two conservatories that created homes
for a vast array of plant life. We are going
to start to talk in this next bit about how
the wear and tear and all of those renovations started

to create some problems for the Executive Mansion. We'll get
into all that after we first have a word from
the sponsors to keep stuff you missed in history class.
Going throughout the late nineteenth entry, the house was showing
its age and the result of all those renovations, and

it got to the point where large receptions or events
with numerous guests necessitated supporting the floors in the state
rooms to prevent those floors from buckling under the weight.
This led to proposals for all manner of additions and renovations,
as well as the possibility of an entirely new residence
being built at a different location. But ultimately the idea

of moving the presidential residence to another home was dismissed
as the iconic importance of the Executive Mansion was considered
too great at this point, so instead they opted for
ongoing repairs. President Ulysts assessed Grant and First Lady Julia
Grant opted to redo the Executive mansion in Victorian style
that was part of a major renovation funded by congressional

appropriation of a hundred thousand dollars. This renovation also prepared
the mansion to host their daughter, Nelly Grant's wedding. The
Grants also had the grand staircase replaced with a landing added. Yeah,
I read in one place, but couldn't find uh primary
sources to back it up that some people in the
press made fun of Ulysses S. Grant for having this

very frillly house. Um, but I don't know again if
that is a valid thing up. But I just wanted
to introduce it because I thought it was sort of charming.
During both the Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland presidencies, there
were proposals to expand the house that went before Congress.
The Harrison plan fell apart when the first lady died.

She had kind of been its champions, so when she
was gone, there was no one else to really keep
that going. The proposal that was developed into the Cleveland's
did not gain support among legislators. That version would have
expanded the house out with two T shaped wings on
either side of the mansion, creating a much wider structure,
similar to many you might see throughout Europe. Any idea

of renovation, though, was put on indefinite hold when the
Spanish American War began in and nine, you know to
The Presidential Home underwent a large scale renovation under the
direction of President Theodore Roosevelt and First Lady Edith Roosevelt.
Roosevelt also made its name officially the White House, since
everybody had been calling it that for years at that point. Anyway.

The administration brought in the architectural firm of mkim, Mead
and White from New York to create a modernized, very stylish,
new design for the White House. The idea of Charles McKim,
who worked closely with the Roosevelts, was that they should
restore the concepts of Hoban and Latrobe, but also modernized
the structure to reflect all of the technology that had

developed in the century since the first occupants had settled
into the White House. This included shifting the office of
the President to the temporary Executive Office building that structure
today is the West Wing. The intent was to create
some separation between the family living areas and the work
areas in the house. Previous podcast subject Alice for Roosevelt,

and her intrusive and impulsive behavior might have been a
factor in that decision. Before this move, the offices and
the family bedrooms had all shared the second floor. The
renovation was budgeted by Congress at a whopping half million dollars.
Again in nineteen o two, the conservatories were demolished. A
porch that had been built onto the east side of

the home was similarly removed. The west terrace became living
quarters for staff and the gardener, and also included a
laundry facility. The interior was decorated in the Bozar style,
echoing classic Greek design ideology, as well as having touches
of Louis the sixteenth design in some rooms, just to
keep things interesting. The big engineering swing that took place

during this renovation was the removal of a load bearing
wall in the state dining Room to expand it. That
wall was replaced with a steel trust to accommodate the weight,
and that became problematic down the road. Yeah, keep that
in mind. William Howard Taft, who followed Teddy Roosevelt as president,
had the Oval office built in the Executive Building, which

echoes the Blue Room. That's the oval diplomatic reception room
with the main house. It's been called a number of
things over the years. During the presidency of Calvin Coolidge,
the building's roof was repaired. It was the same roof
from the eighteen sixteen reconstruction, and it was in rough
shape at this point. But Coolidge also added a third
floor in the process, so the White House could more

easily accommodate guests and also have some additional storage. But
this conversion of the attic space to make a third
level was supported with steel girders, and the combination of
those sturdy but heavy girders with that trust structure that
had been installed during the Roosevelt administration caused the White
House to become structurally unsound. While President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

was in office, World War Two necessitated the creation of
a bomb shelter. This was built under what became the
East Wing that is now primarily used for the needs
of the Office of the First Lady. Fdr also had
a museum commissioned the Iconic Residence to document and share
the White House's history, but that museum plan fell to
the wayside due to financial concerns. During President Harry S.

Truman's time in office, the entire White House underwent significant
renovation due to those structural problems that we mentioned a
moment ago. Those issues were discovered after the addition of
a second floor balcony to the south portico. Once those
problems had been identified, the White House was essentially gutted
because it was believed that it was going to collapse

without intervention. All of those years of additions and changes
in the introduction of electric wiring and pipes into a
building that was not designed for them had taken their toll,
and there had been three primary ideas regarding how to
handle this issue of a crumbling mansion. One was to
restore the existing house. Two was to raise the house

and rebuild it in marble, or three that old Chestnut
Bill an entirely new presidential home somewhere else in the Capitol.
Since it was decided that the White House should be
restored during construction, the first family moved across the streets
to Blair House. Six million dollars had been allocated for
this project, and it was really a full rebuild from

the foundation up. The stone walls remained, but everything else
was removed, Although much of it was carefully placed in
storage to be reincorporated into the fortified new White House.
Ultimately little of it was used again. Yeah, there is
an architecture book that I had bought to do research
for this, and like, it's so bizarre to see the

White House taken down to the studs, Like there are
pictures of it just looking like a bombed out construction site.
It's really sort of strange. Um And over the course
of four years of construction, the building got a new
two floored sub basement that was pinned to a concrete foundation.
The wooden joyces that had been there for more than

a cent re were replaced with concrete and steel beams
to ensure greater structural integrity. Rooms that had been part
of the house before the rebuild were recreated, but they
had updates made to them to reflect modern sensibilities, like
bathrooms attached to bedrooms and fans and turbines added into
the roof. But all of this was done so that

the exterior view of the White House would remain basically
the same. Unfortunately, very few of the mansion's historically significant
artifacts were retained or preserved while saving the house itself.
During the Kennedy administration. First Lady Jackie Kennedy redecorated, but
her vision for the mansion was one that sought to

incorporate what had come before. Her redecoration was really more
of a researched restoration. Mrs Kennedy sought out experts and
antiques and assembled them into a committee that would advise
on this whole process. As Jackie Kennedy's efforts became public knowledge,
antique pieces were donated from private owners to come part
of the White House restoration. In September of nineteen sixty one,

Congress passed an Act concerning the White House and providing
for the care and preservation of its historic and artistic contents.
This established the White House Art Collection, and it finally
declared the White House a museum. The first Lady hired
the first White House curator. Tasked was creating a comprehensive
catalog of the homes contents in managing the collections with

an eye toward preservation as well as collection. As you
may recall from our Vincent Price episode from back in
Price was one of the art experts who helped assemble
that first official art collection. But perhaps the most significant
White House legacy from the Kennedy administration was the First
Lady's establishment of the White House Historical Association. The White

House Historical Association is a private, nonprofit organization, and it
stated mission is quote to protect, preserve, and provide public
access to the rich history of an Erica's executive mansion.
I used a lot of their available research as they
worked on this. In nineteen sixty two, ABC aired what
is now a pretty famous piece about Jackie Kennedy's work

in the White House, including a tour of the highlights
of the newly redone home, and the First Lady spoke
about her ideology for the whole process, saying, quote, this
house will always grow and should. It just seemed to
me such a shame when we came here to find
hardly anything of the past in the house, hardly anything
Before two, the administration of President Jimmy Carter moved the

White House into the future and two significant ways. One
the mansion's first computer system was installed and two solar
panels were installed to heap the facility's water. Those panels
were short lived initially, they were taken down during the
Reagan presidency, although the George W. Bush administration put them back.
So that is where we are going to conclude for today.

Uh And in our second part coming up next time around,
we're going to talk about the gardens, and then as
I mentioned, we're going to talk about how much all
of these things we have talked about really hinged on
the work of enslaved labor. Uh So in the meantime,
I'm going to read a delightful email as a balancing act,

so it's not all all serious. But I do hope
that in hearing all of this, and particularly like that
the White House has burned out completely been taken down
to the studs, etcetera, people realize, like it is not
a static sacred cow, so to speak, something that shifts
and changes. That's just how it's always meant to be
from the beginning. Um. But the email I want to

read is about something completely different, which is an older
episode the Limerick Soviet. Oh yeah, it is from our listener, Serena.
I hope that is how she pronounces it, and it
makes me think of my dream of Genie. Um. Serena writes,
I am a recent listener, and since finding your podcast,
I've been listening every day. I really enjoy the way
you present information in a way where I can listen actively,

and I often find myself talking about the wonderful, slash
terrible things I've learned from you. I'm from Los Angeles
and about three and a half years ago I moved
to Ireland on my own. Since then, I have entered
a relationship and have also had the pleasure of getting
to know my partner's family. My partner and his father
are both history buffs and have been debating and educating
each other for years. I recently spent a lovely sunny

morning in our Hammock listening to your episode about the
Limerick Soviet. I found it fascinating, as I'm always interested
in obscure Irish history, but when I brought it up
to my partner, he had almost zero knowledge about it.
I brought it up the next day during a hike
with his father, and he knew a small bit about
it and told me he has many friends in Slash
from Limerick and they fiercely deny this story ever happened.

I proceeded to send him the link to the episode,
and the next morning he texted me to thank me
for sending it to him and that he enjoyed it. Immensely,
the best part being that he is absolutely delighted to
have sent the episode to his Dowter friends. I'm still
waiting to hear about their responses, but I wanted to
thank you for your wonderful podcast and tell you this
little story about your podcast enlightening this American, her Irish
partner and now a group of seventy plus Irish lass

I hope you're keeping well, and I thought you might
enjoy these photos of our elder puppin socks and Red,
the twelve year old Boston Terriers. They moved to Ireland
two point five years ago. Adorable by the way. Yeah,
it's interesting. I would not have known about the Limerick
Soviet had uh. A wonderful young woman named Maria told
me about it when I was in a bar in Limerick,

right um, as you may recall, and so it was
one of those things that I immediately wanted to look into.
I hope I have not ruffled any feathers in your
your your partner's dad's social circle. Fingers crossed. If you
would like to write to us, you could do so
at History Podcast at iHeart radio dot com. You can
also find us on social media as Missed in History.

If you would like to subscribe to the show, we
would like you to do that as well. You can
do that on the iHeart Radio app, at Apple podcast
or wherever it is you listen. Stuff you Missed in
History Class is a production of I heart Radio. For
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