By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Elegance and sophistication in the heart of Wesley Heights. This magnificent home is located on a quiet, private cul-de-sac in prestigious Wesley Heights and has had an incredible transformation! Once a Vice Presidential residence, this sophisticated English fieldstone Tudor home backs to Glover Archibold Park on over one-half acre. . . . Asking price: $4,495,000.
For some people, sleeping in a presidential bedroom is the thrill of a lifetime. But in the Washington area, the experience can last a lifetime.
Two houses that have been owned by former presidents were offered for sale recently. The sprawling Tudor manor in tony Wesley Heights is where Richard M. Nixon is believed to have written the famous "Checkers" speech that saved his candidacy for vice president. The other residence is the suburban Alexandria split-level where Gerald Ford lived as he prepared to step into the presidency when Nixon resigned in 1974.
They are among at least two dozen area houses that presidents, past presidents and presidents-to-be have called home. Virginia has 10 more, including the well-known ones at Mount Vernon (Washington), Monticello (Jefferson) and Montpelier (Madison).
Most presidential dwellings are owned by museums or embassies, but a handful, such as the two for sale now, remain in private hands. People who own them or reside in the same neighborhoods say living in the aftermath of fame isn't always easy.
Businessman and social worker Cameron Knight owns the 200-year-old house on N Street NW in Georgetown where John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, lived before heading to the White House. Tourists and curiosity-seekers have peered into the windows, stolen items from the yard as souvenirs and climbed over the fence to have a look around. People have shone lights into the bedrooms to take nocturnal pictures.
"People don't understand it's not a public house," Knight said.
His young son said they sometimes feel they are under assault. "We thought about dropping water balloons on them," said Christopher Knight, 8, who said he was frightened when lights flashed in his bedroom window one night.
Some Spring Valley residents rue the day that the Elms, on 52nd Street NW, was purchased by Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Tex.) from socialite Perle Mesta. LBJ later became Kennedy's vice president, and the neighborhood's power and telephone lines were scrambled to protect communication links with the White House.
"We wanted to get a telephone for the maid," recalled Betty May, who lives two doors away. The installers "thought they would be out of here in 15 minutes, but they spent three days looking for the line."
Snow removal became a long-standing problem: District officials began delaying the arrival of snowplows to the neighborhood because the Johnson girls, Luci and Lynda, loved to sled in front of their estate.
The Elms is now owned by the Syrian ambassador. Real estate agents said many of these grand old houses have been bought by foreign countries because their maintenance costs are prohibitive for individuals. And, indeed, many are mansions, underscoring the fact that the presidents or presidents-to-be either started out wealthy or got rich after gaining power. When Nixon first came to town, he lived in an $80-a-month apartment at the Park Fairfax in Alexandria and later rented a unit at the Broadmoor, at 3601 Connecticut Ave. NW, while house-hunting with his wife, Pat.
There was no official vice presidential residence until 1974, so presidents-in-waiting picked their own abodes. Nixon lived in the 9,500-square-foot fieldstone in Wesley Heights, with eight bedrooms, a solarium, a butler's pantry and a library. Vice President Harry S. Truman was renting a simple but pleasant apartment at Connecticut Avenue and Sedgwick Street when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died of a stroke in Georgia.
Presidential homes tell much about a president's character, said Anthony Pitch, a historian and tour guide. "We're always given a smoke screen," Pitch said. "The home reveals the unspoken side." The Ford house in Alexandria's Clover subdivision, for example, is a comfortable and unpretentious family home, with four bedrooms, a patio and a pool.
Before Woodrow Wilson, most presidents returned home when they left office. The houses where they retired are scattered across the country, many turned into state or national museums. But Wilson, previously president of Princeton University, had lived in a college-owned house and had no home to return to. He had started his life in a Presbyterian manse in Staunton, Va., where his father was a pastor, and his earthly goods had multiplied by the end of his life. With the help of his wealthy wife and new friends, he bought a 28-room mansion at 2340 S St. NW in Kalorama.
"Mrs. Wilson said it was a small house appropriate to the needs of a gentleman," said Frank J. Aucella, executive director of the Woodrow Wilson House, now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is the only presidential dwelling in the District that is open regularly to the public.
Today, the biggest cluster of presidential houses is in a 10-block radius in Kalorama. Herbert Hoover lived as commerce secretary at 2300 S St. NW; now it's the Embassy of Burma, also known as Myanmar. When FDR was undersecretary of the Navy during the Wilson administration, he lived at 2131 R Street NW, now home to the Mali ambassador. The Embassy of Monaco owns the former home of Warren G. Harding, at 2314 Wyoming Ave. All are grand manors.
Just up Connecticut Avenue from Kalorama is an entire community named after a president. Grover Cleveland, then 49 and weighing almost 300 pounds, took his 21-year-old bride to live there, at a red-roofed house on Newark Street that no longer exists. The neighborhood soon was dubbed Cleveland Park.
JFK, on the other hand, lived all over town. In 1941, he lived at Dorchester House, on 16th Street NW, and a few years later on 31st Street in Georgetown. In 1950, he lived on 34th Street NW, then at Hickory Hill, a 19th-century estate with stables on Chain Bridge Road in McLean. His first home with Jackie was on Dent Place NW, also in Georgetown. They leased the house -- furnished, along with use of its servants -- from a family friend who was a Republican.
"For many years, the family didn't let that out," said Bob Alloway, who lives there with his wife. She inherited the house from her grandmother, who owned it when the Kennedys lived there.
The Nixons' Wesley Heights house is owned by Democrats, Adelaide and A. Duncan Whitaker.
Most of these houses were just way stations for men on a lifelong march toward the White House, said Rick Shenkman, associate professor of history at George Mason University and author of a book about presidential ambitions. Some disguised the locations of their boyhood homes to boost their chances of electoral success, he said. To appeal to the masses, William Henry Harrison said he lived in a log cabin, but he had been born at Berkeley Plantation on the James River, near Williamsburg.
Presidential houses might have more allure than ordinary homes, but they are susceptible to the same real estate market vagaries. The Nixon and Ford houses have attracted a lot of attention but no solid purchase offers.
The Nixon house, at 4308 Forest Lane NW, went up for sale in October for $4.75 million. In June, the Whitakers took it off the market and renovated it. They have just put it back on the block, this time at $4.495 million, with an open house Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. In 1952, Nixon said he had bought it for $41,000.
The Ford house went on the market a year ago priced at $999,000, later reduced to $899,000. It didn't sell and was just rented out for $3,500 a month.
There's no doubt that having a presidential residence in the neighborhood lends cachet for blocks around. Lydia Benson said she was thrilled to be living across the street from the Elms. And Magali Goara, a French au pair who tends two children in Georgetown, was delighted to learn that the family that employs her lived next to a house where Jackie Kennedy once lived.
"It was, 'Oh, my God, it's JFK's house right here,' " she said. "I was very excited. In France, we know three presidents: Kennedy, Clinton and Bush."
But there are humbling reminders that history and memory are institutions of perspective and subject to time.
Zbigniew Krzyczkowski, a guard who watches over the Polish consulate at 23rd Street and Wyoming Avenue NW, spends his days looking across to the imposing brick building where William Howard Taft spent his final years, a structure now occupied by the Syrian Embassy.
Taft's passing was big news in Washington in 1930 because he was the only person to have served as president and chief justice of the United States. But Krzyczkowski, who has worked at the consulate only a month, had never heard of Taft and had no idea that the house he looks at for hours each day had ever housed an important figure.
"I don't know about it," he said, smiling politely and shrugging his shoulders.