Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that George W. Bush was the governor of Texas when the Bush family stayed at Blair House before George H.W. Bush's 1989 inauguration. George W. Bush was not elected governor until 1994.

Blair House, Now Home to the Obamas, Has Hosted Decades' Worth of VIP Guests

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009

Today, when President-elect Barack Obama and his family check in to Blair House, the president's guesthouse, they will be making themselves at home in a place with 119 rooms steeped in history.

Abraham Lincoln would stroll here across the street from the White House and prop his feet up by the fireplace, in a study now called the Lincoln Room. It's where silver candlesticks once belonging to John Hancock and a tankard made by Paul Revere are part of the furnishings. Like presidents-elect before him, Obama can choose a quiet corner for practicing his inauguration speech, away from the press and the public.

It's all part of the tradition, protocol and hospitality associated with Blair House, which for decades has provided a backdrop for diplomacy and the orderly transfer of power. Others who've stayed there include Charles de Gaulle, Imelda Marcos, Menachem Begin, Queen Elizabeth II and Ronald Reagan.

Today, Nancy Brinker, U.S. chief of protocol, will greet the Obamas at the front door. The staff of 14 will be standing by in the complex of rooms decorated in the style of a fashionable 19th-century home. The stately but comfortable interiors, last decorated in 1988 by Mario Buatta and the late Mark Hampton, are filled with English and American antique furniture, fine portraits, carved mirrors, floral wallpaper and Chinese export porcelain. The space has the feel of an elegant house museum (minus the velvet ropes) or a patrician aunt's home, loaded with old books, crystal chandeliers, fresh flowers, silver and Oriental rugs.

"The place looks like the beautiful home of someone who lives in a historic house with lots of family pieces," says Buatta, who checks in on Blair House several times a year. "They wanted it to look like a house, not a hotel."

The staff personalizes each visit, making sure guests' favorite foods are in the fridge, the bathrooms are stocked with fresh towels (monogrammed "BH") and the exercise room and hair salon are ready. For incoming president Ronald Reagan, the staff stocked his suite with his snack of choice, Jelly Belly jelly beans. For King Hussein of Jordan, the chef grilled his favorite American food: medium-well hamburgers topped with the works. For Nikita Khrushchev, came a borscht ice cream.

And for the Obamas, the staff has set up special homework areas for 10-year-old Malia and 7-year-old Sasha. Since the Carter administration, every president-elect has stayed at Blair House for one to six nights before inauguration, according to assistant manager Ann Dorr. The Obamas had asked to check in before Jan. 5, when the girls started classes at Sidwell Friends School, but the house had already been reserved for former Australian prime minister John Howard and booked for other diplomatic functions.

Other visitors who typically are invited by the president to stay at Blair House are visiting chiefs of state or heads of government, or former first families in town for state funerals, according to Raymond Martinez, U.S. deputy chief of protocol.

In 1942, the federal government bought the home, which had belonged to the prominent Blair family since 1837. A year later, the government acquired the Blair-Lee house next door and joined the two. The original home had always been a lively center of politics, with visits from such White House neighbors as Andrew Jackson, who met with his "Kitchen Cabinet" in its parlors, according to Candace Shireman, curator of Blair House.

Two more adjacent buildings were added in the 1960s, so the complex is now four historic houses joined into one. The 70,000-square-foot residence has 14 guest bedrooms and nine bedrooms for staff (they provide 24-hour service), 35 bathrooms and four dining rooms, as well as sitting rooms, drawing rooms, pantries, laundry facilities, a flower shop and offices. (No pool or spa.)

"The house has a wonderful patina and sense of history," says Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt, who supervised an overhaul in the 1980s when she was chief of protocol during the Reagan administration. She is now chairman of the Blair House Restoration Fund, which was established in 1985 to raise private funds for decorating and refurbishment. When Blair House closes for the month of August each year, the fund pays for repairs and restoration of the valuable furnishings and collections. "The White House is much more grand, but Blair House is very, very beautiful," Roosevelt says.

The Obamas will be staying in the principal suite, the traditional accommodation for heads of state and presidents-elect. It consists of two bedrooms, a sitting room, 2 1/2 baths and lots of closet space. There are two working fireplaces. The First Lady's Bathroom, which is part of the suite, was redone last summer and features a glass walled shower, soaking tub and beige marble tiles.

In recent years, there have been 14 to 25 official visits per year at Blair House, lasting about two to three nights, says Dorr, as well as 50 to 100 other functions. The day-to-day expenses are funded by the budget of the State Department's Office of the Chief of Protocol, Martinez says, while the building is funded and maintained by the General Services Administration.

Brinker says she is about to release the results of a government study of Blair House's infrastructure that will list urgent repair needs. Of major concern, Brinker says, is the heating and cooling system, which is crucial to the maintenance of the fine art and antiques. She is hoping for financing through a public-private partnership. "In addition to a guesthouse, this is a museum with amazing artifacts and items we are stewards of. I am concerned about the quality of the air conditioning and heating systems in the house and all the documents there," she says.

Before the Obamas move to the White House, Blair House will briefly become a family home again. Twenty years ago, on Jan. 19, 1989, 22 members of the Bush family were staying there to witness the swearing-in of George H.W. Bush. The place was chockablock with toys, playpens, computer games, trucks and 10 grandkids. "They're having a ball," reported a member of the transition team who stopped by. A Washington Post story at the time quoted the president-elect's son George W. Bush, then governor of Texas, as saying, "Blair House was fairly formal. Until we moved in."

Some of the visits have been more poignant, such as that of former first lady Nancy Reagan when she stayed there to attend the memorial service after her husband's death. She wrote in the guest book on June 11, 2004: "Many thanks from my family and me for all your kindness and thoughtfulness at a very difficult time in our lives."

A Peek Inside Blair House on TV

Blair House is rarely seen on camera and never open for public tours. But this Saturday at 7 p.m., C-SPAN will premiere the one-hour documentary "Blair House: The President's Guest House," a glimpse inside the rooms and their stories.

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