At first glance, the stately home with green window shutters could belong to anyone.
But the 128-year-old house at Number One Observatory Circle is the designated home of the vice president of the United States and where Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, are set to live for at least the next four years.
Located about two miles from the White House and adjacent to several embassies, the secluded home sits on a 72-acre plot known as the U.S. Naval Observatory. It is not open to the public.
Here’s what you should know about the residence that seven vice presidents have called home.
What’s the history of the house?
The 9,000-square-foot Queen Anne-style house, with a library, basement kitchen and several bedrooms, was designed by Washington architect Leon E. Dessez. It was built in 1893 and was originally intended for the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, a scientific agency that moved to the site the same year from its original home in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Starting in the 1920s and for the next five decades, the house served as the residence for the chiefs of naval operations and their families.
Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. was the last Navy official to live in the house, which was designated as the home for vice presidents in 1974.
Where had vice presidents lived before?
Traditionally, vice presidents had lived in their own homes or in hotels while in office. But the desire for the second in command to have his own residence dates to at least 1923, when the wife of Sen. John B. Henderson of Missouri offered a newly built home as the official residence of the vice president, according to The New York Times. The house was described as “imposing” and valued at $500,000.
Calvin Coolidge, who served as vice president from 1921 to 1923, lived at a hotel during his tenure and later said in his autobiography that an “official residence with suitable maintenance should be provided for the Vice-President” and that the position “should have a settled and permanent habitation and a place, irrespective of the financial ability of its temporary occupant.”
Charles Denyer, the author of “Number One Observatory Circle” and a cybersecurity and national security expert, said the Secret Service was hampered by the lack of an official address for the vice president because security protocols could not be established if each residence was different.
“It was a very interesting situation that the second most powerful person in the United States of America, one of the most powerful people in the world, did not have a designated temporary home,” Denyer said.
When did the house become the official residence for vice presidents?
In March 1966, the House Public Works Committee approved the construction of a three-story mansion for $750,000 on the grounds of the Naval Observatory for the vice president. The next month, President Lyndon B. Johnson postponed the construction until economic conditions improved, but the house was never built. At the time, Vice President Hubert Humphrey was living in his own home in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
After years of spending thousands on security measures at the private homes of vice presidents — $81,000 for Gerald Ford’s home in Virginia and $245,000 on Spiro T. Agnew’s home in Maryland among others — Congress designated Number One Observatory Circle as “the official temporary residence” of the vice president in 1974. (The “temporary” designation still remains.) It was the first time in history that a home was provided for the second in command. At the time, lawmakers approved $315,000 for repairs, renovations and some furnishings.
“It’s kind of a shame that we waited as long we did to give the vice president a home of their own,” said Mike Purdy, a presidential historian and author of “101 Presidential Insults.” “But in some ways that is reflective of the insignificant role of the vice presidency as it was seen for so many years.”
Walter Mondale was the first vice president to live there.
After the home’s official designation in 1974, another three years went by before a vice president moved in, according to the White House. Ford acceded to the presidency before he could use it, and his own vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, had his own home, using Number One Observatory Circle only as an entertaining space.
Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale was the first vice president to live in the home, starting in 1977.
“Ironically and in parallel as the office of the vice presidency has grown in importance over the years, particularly with the election of Vice President Walter Mondale in 1976, the home has grown considerably also in terms of amenities and security upgrades,” Denyer said. “Vice President Mondale became probably the most consequential vice president ever to that date. Carter involved him in almost everything.”
The Navy still maintains the home, Denyer said, while the Vice President’s Residence Foundation raises private funds for any redecorating or upgrades to the home.
Each vice president and his family have contributed to the evolution of the home, Purdy said, noting that George H.W. Bush, who was vice president from 1981 to 1989, built a horseshoe pit and a quarter-mile track on the property. His successor, Dan Quayle, installed a swimming pool, which years later received praise from Vice President Joe Biden.
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, have hosted many private dinners with donors and corporate executives but have made minimal changes to the home, Denyer said. In 2017, Karen Pence unveiled a beehive at the residence.
How will the home change under Harris and Emhoff?
On Wednesday, Harris will become the first woman, first Black person, and first person of Asian descent to be sworn in as the vice president of the United States. And if history is an indicator, she and Emhoff will put their own mark on the house.
“Think about this, who has lived in that home for the better part of 45-plus years, white males, and here comes this completely different person,” Denyer said, adding that Harris’ arrival will put a “much-needed spotlight” on the home.
Eyes will also be on Emhoff, who will take on a position that traditionally has been defined by hosting and decorating for the holiday, as well as robust work like caring for military families and developing healthy eating habits for children.
In a video on Twitter, Emhoff said he was honored and humbled to be the first man to hold the role and said he would make it his own.
“So, I do want to set an example for those in the future who can look back at the way I’ve approached it and hopefully that’ll help them as well,” he said.
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