I guess I always assumed the Vice President of the United States was shacked up in the White House along with the President, occupying a couple rooms somewhere at the back of the house, nothing too fancy of course, occasionally running into the leader of the free world in the west wing kitchen while grabbing a late-night glass of milk. Well, today another of my childhood assumptions was thwarted when I learned the true home address of the Vice President of the United States: Number One Observatory Circle. So let’s take a look around at the VP’s digs…
Built in 1893, the three-story Queen Anne style brick house is located on the northeast grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. It was the home of the Chief of Naval Operations until 1974 when Congress actually passed a law that rendered the house the “official temporary residence of the Vice-President of the United States”– yes officially, it’s the temporary residence, despite it having served as the home of every vice president for the past 40 years.
Before that time, the Vice President lived in his own home, but following the John F. Kennedy assassination, Congress decided the VP needed an official residence in 1966, designating “approximately ten acres at the United States Naval Observatory” to build one. The only problem was finding the funding for such a project in the midst of the Vietnam War. So instead of building one from scratch, as a temporary solution, the Secret Service began paying for expensive security upgrades to the private homes of Vice-Presidents, which seemed like an okay idea until President Nixon’s reign.
When Nixon’s VP, Spiro Agnew resigned in 1973, he had only lived in his house for three months, but was able to sell it for a large profit thanks to all the government-paid upgrades, which included extensions to the property as well as a new driveway. (Fun fact: Agnew also pled no contest plea to criminal charges of tax evasion following his resignation). None of this sat well with the public and the minor scandal over the VP’s residence led to an immediate change of plans. Since an official residence still hadn’t been built, in 1974, the Admiral’s House at Number One Observatory Circle became the official residence.
Seven Vice Presidents later, while it’s still legally the “temporary” residence four decades, everyone has pretty much accepted that Congress isn’t building a new VP residence anytime soon. A total of $2,6 million has been spent on renovations since 1974.
The house formally opened as the vice presidential residence in September 1975, but Vice President Nelson Rockefeller never actually moved in, preferring to remain at his larger private home address instead and use Number One Observatory Circle for entertaining purposes. His family however did donate millions of dollars of furnishings to the house.
The first VP to actually live there was Walter Mondale under Jimmy Carter and ever since, no VP has turned it down.
(If you watch House of Cards however, you’ll remember an episode inspired by the real-life drama surrounding the VP’s residence in which Frank Underwood refuses to move to One Observatory Circle and instead opts to remain living in his own private residence, which is renovated and the Secret Service has numerous security features installed).
When it came to the renovations of the Queen Anne style property, there wasn’t much consideration for its historic preservation, inside or out. The home now includes a 525 square foot skylit exercise room, a swimming pool, hot tub, pool house and putting green– all paid for by private donations.
The Living room in 1997 vs 2008
It’s mostly furnished with colonial style pieces and the wallpaper and upholstery has changed several times over the years according to the occupier’s taste.
In 2009, a reporter for Newsweek claimed Vice President Joe Biden had revealed that there is an underground “9/11″ bunker underneath the residence. Neighbours backed up the story with claims they had heard loud construction noises in 2002. The VP’s spokesperson was quick to contain the story, publicly stating, “What the vice president described in his comments was not — as some press reports have suggested — an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs work space in the residence.”
A version of the cage bed at the Max Ernest Museum (source)
During the 1970s, the Rockefellers furnished one of the bedrooms with a contemporary bed designed by the German artist and pioneer of Dadaism, Max Ernst. It was called the “cage” bed and featured the VP’s seal on the headboard
When visiting the Bush family at the house in the early 80s, Mrs. Rockefeller offered Mrs. Bush the bed permanently to the house as part of its collection. Mrs. Bush responded “you are always welcome in this house, but there’s no need to bring your own bed.” The Rockefellers also tried offering it to the succeeding Vice President Dan Quayle. He turned it down too.
Maybe they’ll have better luck with Mike Pence.