I came away from my tour of the White House earlier this month with two distinct impressions.
The first is that the White House is smaller than I expected. The famous East Room, where Presidents have lain in state, is 2,844 square feet. While that’s about as the same square footage in my entire house, it’s nothing compared to the massive rooms in the mansions built by the rich in Newport, Rhode Island, during the Roaring 20s. The White House is on smaller scale than those monuments to excess. For all it’s grandeur, it looks and feels like a livable, though elegant, space.
And while seeing the rooms in the East Wing would be enough to make the visit worthwhile, the hidden treat of the tour were the Secret Service agents. Perhaps they’re not always so talkative, but I went with a group of romance writers and we are not shy when asking questions. Especially when their answers are so juicy and interesting!
The female secret service agent on the ground floor talked to us about meeting her husband on the job (he’s a member of the sniper team on the roof) and related a very funny Clint Eastwood story while simultaneously glaring at anyone who dared to sit on the steps to the next level. And my favorite was the agent who said, in his best Ving Rhames voice, that it was good not to touch silk wall coverings because then, he would have to “break my arm” and he didn’t want to do that because I looked like such a nice lady.
I’m pretty sure he was kidding.
The tour was set up months in advance, through a member of Congress. Once everyone in our group passed a background check, the visit was approved on the condition that it can be canceled without notice. The Canadians in our group were approved as well, which was nice, but they pointed out that while the White House wasn’t worried about them, the CIA apparently was, as they’d been barred from a tour of the CIA offices. Apparently, the Agency is a bit more paranoid about foreigners, even Canadians.
Once we arrived at the outside entrance to the White House, we were sorted into alphabetical order to make is easier for the Secret Service to check us in. We were complimented about doing it far faster the high school students who had visited the previous day. Then we went through metal detectors, walked outside in a railed out passageway, and inside the ground floor of the East Wing.
The portraits of the Presidents begin right away. I recognized most of them but was surprised to find the smiling, happy-faced man staring at me was Herbert Hoover. On the other hand, Andrew Johnson’s portrait convinced me that I would never want to encounter him in a dark alley.
Jacqueline Kennedy’s rose garden is visible through the windows, not nearly as large as the Rose Garden but lovely nonetheless. The ground floor rooms include The Library, which is stocked with American authors. The paneling of this room and several others on the floor is made from the 1817 timbers that were salvaged during the 1948-52 reconstruction. Also on this floor is the famous China Room but that was blocked off to visitors. The Vermeil Room features portraits of recent First Ladies.
The female secret service agent stationed at the end of the ground floor corridor pointed out that, yes, these rooms are not only still used but they also contain the bathrooms for guests attending events on the first floor. The men’s room is in the Library and the women’s room in the Vermeil Room.
Which is how Clint Eastwood came to be downstairs with his much younger female companion one night. The agent said that he’d wanted to use the private Presidential elevator to go back upstairs but was stopped by security. As they went back to the stairs, she said that Eastwood’s companion let him have it for the error, telling him that she’d told him so.
Even Clint Eastwood gets ribbed for going the wrong way.
The East Room is the first stop on the first floor. It’s a stately room but, as I said, smaller than I expected. Like the rooms below, it’s filled with Presidential portraits and other great works of art and it is the room where seven Presidents have lain in state.
Then there’s the three rooms of color: the Red, Green and Blue Rooms. They get their names from the colored silk that line their walls, silk which can be damaged by touch, hence the warning from the Secret Service agent.
The Green Room was once Thomas Jefferson’s dining room and is now a parlor used for receptions. The Blue Room is furnished to represent the period of James Monroe. This is where the White House Christmas tree is placed each year. The Red Room was once used by John Adams as a breakfast room.
Each room has an antique clock and we were told that there is one staff member at the White House whose job is to keep the clocks in sync.
The State Dining Room is next and, like the East Room, I’d expected it to be bigger. I’ve been to wedding halls with more room but none more beautifully decorated.
All the woodwork in this room is hand-carved mahogany and the fireplace mantle has a carved blessing from the second President, John Adams. It reads: “I Pray Heaven to 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.”
During the tour, the dining room was set with a long table as in the above photo but the Secret Service agent said it’s more common to have the room set with circular tables. Maximum capacity is one hundred thirty guests.
The final area is the Entrance and Cross Halls. It is a large open space containing an antique grand piano, a Steinway decorated with folk dancing scenes and eagle supports that was donated by the Steinway Company in 1938.
It is here that President Obama holds his weekly cocktail hour. It’s also where the security starts to be more visible again as the agent in the hall was in uniform and armed, though he cheerfully answered questions about what kind of handgun he carried. (A Sig Sauer, I believe.)
All the rooms on the Tour are working areas of the White House. During the morning tours, the carpets are rolled up and rope set up to prevent visitors from touching anything. When the tours end, the carpets are rolled back down, the ropes removed, and all is ready to go.
The tour exits on the right side of the entrance that faces Pennsylvania Avenue. There’s an incredible view of the famous fountain, so it’s frustrating that no cameras are allowed. It would be great fun to take a photo looking out from the White House. The agents told us that it’s forty-seven feet to the fountain. Occasionally, someone tries to get there, for reasons known only to them.
No one’s made it yet.
The specially trained dogs on station outside with their handlers are the reason. The muzzles on the dogs have a special strap that allows them to be pulled off in the blink of an eye. But they didn’t look particularly menacing. One dog kept nudging his handler for ear scritches and wagged his tail at any and all people in sight.
But I have no doubt that if I’d tried for the fountain, I’d regret it. Very quickly.
Before going on the tour, we were told that most of the White House is blocked off and that we wouldn’t be able to see much of it. But once the Tour was over, I felt as if I had seen a very great deal. I came away with the feeling that despite all the ornamentation, the armed guards, and the Presential seals, that the White House is very much a home as well as our national headquarters.
I would highly recommend a tour. Just make sure you ask the Secret Service Agents lots of questions while you’re there. And don’t touch the silk wall coverings.