By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The modest two-story colonial in Alexandria has all the trappings of an ordinary home: the pink bathroom, the Magic Chef oven, a couple of fireplaces. But 514 Crown View Dr. also boasts some signs, both subtle and overt, that indicate its unusual status in U.S. history.
Neighbors talk of the steel rods placed underneath the driveway to support the limos. A previous tenant speaks about the countless telephone lines installed in the basement and attic used by the Secret Service.
But a gold-lettered National Park Service sign affixed to the right of the front door says it all:
PRESIDENT GERALD R. FORD, JR. RESIDENCE.
The death of the nation's 38th president has focused public attention on his time in the White House. But some spotlight has also fallen on a little-known, decidedly humdrum neighborhood (about 15 minutes south of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.), where Ford lived for nearly 20 years as a Michigan congressman, vice president and -- for 10 whole days before moving into the White House -- as president.
Mostly everything about the place appears serviceable and decently appointed (with a swimming pool out back, to boot), but the property spans less than a quarter-acre, a remarkable home simply because it is so unremarkable. It stands in humble (almost painfully humble) contrast with the mansion made available to vice presidents in 1974 in the tony Massachusetts Avenue Heights neighborhood in Northwest Washington.
Ford was the first vice president eligible to live in the house on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory, but he became president before renovations were completed. Ford's vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, used the house mainly to entertain. The first full-time residents were Walter and Joan Mondale, who took up residence in 1977. Every vice president since has lived there.
Javad Khakbaz, who is the president of an Iranian English-language newspaper company, has tried to find someone to take it off his hands since September and is suffering the same indignity laid upon just about every other seller in the Washington area: No one's buying.
Khakbaz is reluctant to discuss the home's plight -- he has dropped the original price of $1.05 million to $999,000 -- but his real estate agent, Joan Dixon, is blunt: "We've had a couple people interested in it, but they wanted to lowball the price," she said yesterday, showing the home not to prospective buyers but to a bunch of curious reporters. "It's a wonderful family home. It has four bedrooms, two full bathrooms and three half-bathrooms . . . even if one of them is pink."
But what might appear to be normal about the home and neighborhood is not. The Abbruzzese family at 515 Crown View Dr. proudly showcases a copper plaque above their garage, given to them by members of the Fourth Estate whom they permitted to camp out on their front lawn while Ford was across the street doing neighborly things, like helping run the country, or his family, depending.
The Abbruzzeses, Democrats, forged a gentle bond with their powerful neighbors across the road.
"When it was Betty's birthday, or it was their anniversary, he was out of town and I invited her to dinner with some neighbors," Louise Abbruzzese recalled yesterday. "But she called me and said he was coming home early and I said, 'That's fine, he can come.' I was cooking a rib roast. He liked beef. He liked it rare."
But in the years since Ford departed Crown View Drive in 1974, the home never found a longtime resident. It changed hands twice, Khakbaz said, and neighbors speak with a calibrated air of decorum about the itinerant nature of its inhabitants.
"It's a hard house to sell because it's been a rental for a long time," said Jill McCaffrey, 63, who lives next door to the Ford home with her husband, retired four-star Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "Let's just leave it at that."
One of those renters, Brewster Thackeray, 37, now a senior project manager for AARP, recalled yesterday how he first found the place back in 1996. He was 27 and had just broken up with his live-in girlfriend and didn't want to pay the rent at their Cleveland Park apartment on his own. Serendipitously, he stumbled across an ad for the former president's house.
"It was super cool," said Thackeray, who was with the American Trucking Associations at the time. "I had found a picture of Gerald Ford washing dishes in his sink, but there I was using that very same sink next to the same oven next to that same knotty pine paneling on the walls."
Thackeray was so impressed that he wrote the Fords -- and Ford wrote him and his roommates back, two letters and a signed photograph. "You have our very best wishes as current occupants of the home we built and loved," one of Ford's letters said. "We were proud of it when we moved in March 1955. Thanks for enjoying it also."
And enjoy it Thackeray and friends did. The presidential refrigerator was converted into a "kegorator." And they had parties, though not necessarily of the black-tie, state dinner variety.
"The best party we had was a toga party," he said. "People came in togas and hung around the pool."