Inside the Vice President's Residence

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 27, 2008

A dozen members of the Cheney family will gather today for roast turkey with oyster dressing at the vice president's official residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory. The dining table will be set with white vice presidential china, tulip-shaped Lenox crystal stemware and a sippy cup or two.

Unlike the stately mansion of the first family a few miles away, the Queen Anne house of the second family stays out of the spotlight. It has been home to five families so far. Many of them say it's an ideal place to raise children and entertain grandchildren.

On Jan. 20, the 33-room white-brick house with sage-green shutters off Massachusetts Avenue NW will welcome its sixth family, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, 66, and his wife, Jill, 57, a college professor. The Bidens have three grown children and five grandchildren. It has been reported that the Bidens will retain their house in suburban Wilmington, Del.

Because Joe Biden has an interest in architecture and had a hand in designing his Delaware home, he has chatted up past residents of his new Washington address for some details.

"I told him, "You are going to love living in your new house,' " said Joan Mondale, the wife of former vice president Walter Mondale. "It's a home, not an institution.' "

The Mondales and their three teenagers lived there from 1977 to 1981, adding contemporary American art and studio pottery to the formal furniture in the house. "It was a lively household," she said. "Our kids had friends who came and stayed overnight, and there were a lot of very important meetings here, so you felt like you were in the center of things."

Living in a temporary residence can be complicated when holidays roll around. The Gores dished up Halloween, giving out candy to neighborhood kids and hosting a costume party for the media. But they went to Tennessee for Thanksgiving. The Mondales, however, gathered around the empire table that once graced the Manhattan apartment of John D. Rockefeller for the traditional big meal. Joan Mondale's favorite Thanksgiving remembrance: "I didn't have to cook the turkey."

The home was built in 1893 to house superintendents of the Naval Observatory and in 1928 became the residence of the chief of naval operations. It's still owned and operated by the Navy, but in 1974 Congress designated it the official residence of the vice president. The observatory property occupies 72 acres, 13 of them making up the vice presidential compound, according to Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the Observatory. The Navy supplies the staff for the house.

During a visit to 1 Observatory Circle the week before Thanksgiving, the roses in the front garden were blooming and the white wicker furniture was still on the veranda. While workers set up a tent for the series of holiday parties the Cheneys will host, Lynne Cheney took this reporter on a tour of the home's first floor, decorated in furnishings of cream and celadon.

There is a sense of history inside and a clutch of stunning artworks: A Gilbert Stuart portrait of John Adams, the country's first vice president, hangs in the library. A planter of grass picks up the vivid green in Helen Frankenthaler's painting "Lush Spring" over the living room sofa.

"If we had a theme, it was 'keep it calm,' " says Cheney, who has six grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 14. "We are an active family." The expansive entrance foyer with thick green-and-beige Oriental carpet is a favorite spot. "Our grandchildren don't stay seated for long after dinner, so they can go there and roll around and play and dance."

The house is building its own furniture collection. Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, who was vice president from 1993 to 2001, recalls starting with "a basically gorgeous historic but empty" house. The fourth family to live there came with four children -- one in college and three still at home -- and three dogs. Her favorite part of the process was going to museums "and having them pull out special pieces we could borrow."

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