If you took all the presidential retreats in the country’s history and combined them into one sprawling structure, it would probably still be smaller than the 110,000-square-foot Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. And that’s including all 12 guest cabins at Camp David.
Not so surprising then that Donald Trump — a noted champion of the “big league” — did not helicopter off to Camp David until this weekend, five months into his presidency, to spend a day and a night with his youngest son, his wife and in-laws.
While Trump’s predecessors frequented the retreat in the Maryland mountains, the 45th president has vocally disdained it, once telling a reporter its rustic charms would wear off in about half an hour. He has preferred to spend his many weekends away from Washington at his glitzy Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, or his secluded golf club in New Jersey.
Every other commander in chief since Richard Nixon had already spent time at Camp David, a 30-minute helicopter ride from the White House, long before this point in their presidencies.
While millions of tourists flock to the White House every year, it’s often a place presidents want to escape. Most have gone back to family homes in the summertime, particularly before the existence of central air conditioning. But a handful have also kept personal retreats, varying widely in degrees of luxury from a rough log cabin down a dirt road to a 300-foot yacht to the glamorous Mar-a-Lago. Here are some of them:
Before you criticize Trump for his frequent escapes from the White House, consider this: President Abraham Lincoln spent more than a quarter of his presidency at his retreat. But, perhaps because of the pressures of the Civil War, he didn’t go very far; the Gothic revival-style cottage was only four miles away, in what is now Washington’s Petworth neighborhood.
The home had been built in 1842 by a wealthy banker and then purchased by the federal government to use for a veterans-care facility. A dormitory housing about 200 disabled and elderly veterans was built next door. Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, visited the cottage first and probably recommended it to Lincoln, who first came a few days after his inauguration and kept coming back; his last visit was the day before he was assassinated.
The poet Walt Whitman, who worked as a government clerk and volunteer nurse during the Civil War, reported seeing Lincoln riding to and from the White House and the retreat “with a deep latent sadness in the expression.”
Built on a hilltop in a then-rural area, the breezy cottage offered a break from the heat and din of downtown Washington. In 1862, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln wrote to a friend, “We are truly delighted with this retreat, the drives & walks around here are delightful, & each day, brings its visitors.”
Albert See, a member of the presidential guard, recollected a night with the president and his son: “When at the Soldiers’ Home one bright moonlight night, the president and Tad were playing checkers on the porch and as the sentinel passed by the president asked him if he ever played checkers and the sentinel said he did and the president said, ‘Set down your gun and come up with us, take a game.’ ” The sentinel lost.
But the burdens of the war were never far away. From the veranda, Lincoln would have been able to see fresh graves being dug at the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery. He wrote several drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation in the cottage’s study. And he and his wife were even evacuated from the home when a Confederate army attacked a nearby fort in 1864. (He then foolishly went to the battlefield and briefly came under enemy fire.)
The cottage was later used by presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur, though not nearly as much. It was restored in 2008 and is open to the public.
The official yacht of the commander in chief played an important role in one president’s courtship. Seven months after Woodrow Wilson’s first wife died, he met Edith Bolling Galt, a widow 15 years his junior. He was immediately smitten, writes John Milton Cooper Jr. in “Woodrow Wilson: A Biography.” After only a few chaperoned dates, Wilson confessed his love to her on the South Portico of the White House. Bolling Galt later recalled blurting out, “Oh, you can’t love me, for you don’t really know me; and it is less than a year since your wife died.”
The relationship idled for about a month. Enter the USS Mayflower, a Navy ship that had been recommissioned as a presidential yacht in 1905. Wilson invited Bolling Galt to join him on a cruise up the East Coast to New York. Perhaps it was the luxurious dining room, the marble bathtub, or the way every U.S. warship fired a salute and played an anthem as the yacht sailed past, but thereafter Bolling Galt’s affections warmed. They married a few months later in December 1915.
As newlyweds, they frequently took the yacht for weekend cruises.
The Brown House at Rapidan Camp
President Herbert Hoover was born and raised farther west of Washington than any president before him, giving him an appreciation for wilderness rivaled only by Teddy Roosevelt. Soon after taking office in 1929, he selected an area of the Rapidan River in Shenandoah National Park for a rustic retreat. Marines built the camp, comprising 13 lodges and cabins, as part of a training exercise. (Hoover paid for the materials from his own pocket.) Hoover’s cabin was dubbed “the Brown House.”
As the Great Depression gripped the country, Hoover visited Rapidan frequently, often on doctor’s orders. The remote enclave, accessible only by a rough dirt road, attracted a who’s who of the day: aviator Charles Lindbergh, inventor Thomas Edison and British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. The press was banned.
Little White House
Franklin D. Roosevelt first visited the therapeutic waters of Warm Springs, Ga., while seeking treatment for polio in 1924. Soon after, he purchased the resort and turned it into a foundation for other polio sufferers. In 1932, while governor of New York and the Democratic nominee for president, he built the six-room “Little White House” on the grounds.
Roosevelt didn’t get to visit much during World War II. After returning from the Yalta Conference toward the end of war in March 1945, he came to the Little White House one more time. While sitting for a portrait in the living room of the retreat, he suffered a massive stroke and died a short time later.
The only official retreat of presidents, this former naval installment in Frederick County, Md., was first developed by Roosevelt in 1942. He dubbed it “Shangri La.” The rustic cabin was a favorite of President Dwight Eisenhower, who recovered from a heart attack there in 1955. He renamed it Camp David after his father and grandson. Every president since has visited, and they’ve often been joined by foreign heads of state. Winston Churchill was the first in 1943; he described it as “in principle a log cabin, with all modern improvements.”
Camp David is perhaps best known not for presidential relaxation but for the peace accords President Jimmy Carter negotiated between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Egypt’s Anwar El Sadat in 1978.
When asked just before taking office if he planned to visit the wooded hideaway, Trump told a German journalist: “Camp David is very rustic, it’s nice, you’d like it. You know how long you’d like it? For about 30 minutes.”
In the end, he spent most of a weekend there, and tweeted Sunday evening: “Camp David is a very special place. An honor to have spent the weekend there. Military runs it so well and are so proud of what they do!”
La Casa Pacifica
While running for president in 1968, Richard Nixon sent an aide to search the California coast for a presidential hideaway, according to the Los Angeles Times. He found a 9,000-square-foot Spanish-style mansion in San Clemente, Calif., which was for sale by a Democratic backer who had reportedly played poker there with FDR.
Nixon made the purchase soon after he won the White House. While president, he hosted Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Sato at his “Western White House.”
The retreat became Nixon’s home after his resignation in 1974. He sold it in 1980.
La Casa Pacifica has been on the market since 2015. The price has been decreased several times and is listed at $63.5 million, according to the OC Register.
Prairie Chapel Ranch
President George W. Bush purchased this 1,600-acre ranch near Crawford, Tex., in 1999, while still governor of the Lone Star State. Although critics complained about his frequent trips to the “Western White House,” Bush built a 4,000-square-foot house well suited for hosting dignitaries and holding meetings. That included summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In August 2005, the mother of a soldier killed in the Iraq War set up a makeshift camp near Bush’s ranch on the same day he began a five-week vacation, saying she wouldn’t leave until she was granted a meeting with the president. She never got the meeting, but the antiwar protesters and media that flocked to her camp certainly ruined the vacation.
Bush and his wife, Laura, now live in Dallas and use the ranch as a weekend retreat.
Trump’s peach-colored castle has been a constant source of controversy in the nascent days of his presidency. Is he really going there again? Is it a conflict of interest to entertain China’s president at one of his businesses? Was it really meant to be a “Winter White House” decades ago, as a State Department website recently claimed and later deleted?
Built in 1927 by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post, Mar-a-Lago had been intended as a presidential retreat when it was bequeathed to the U.S. government in 1972. By hosting world leaders there now, Trump was fulfilling “a dream deferred,” the State website said.
While this account is essentially true, the tale of Trump’s acquisition of the baroque property is a little more complicated than that.
“Back in the 1970s, when the federal government owned it, President Richard M. Nixon flew down to look into declaring it the ‘Winter White House,’ ” The Washington Post’s Mary Jordan reported in 1991. Nixon resigned before he could follow through; subsequent presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter showed no interest in visiting or developing the 128-room mansion.
Tired of the expense of maintaining it, the government returned the property to the Post Foundation in 1980. Post’s children were also uninterested in its upkeep. In 1985, they put the estate on the market for $20 million.
According to Trump, he offered to buy the property, including the velvet-and-gold furnishings, for $28 million (on other occasions, he has said $25 million and $15 million) but was rebuffed. Incensed, he told the foundation he had purchased a small strip of land in front of Mar-a-Lago and threatened to build an eyesore that would block the view of the beach unless they sold the estate to him. In the end, he got it for a bargain — $5 million for the house and $3 million for the furniture.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 18, 2017
During Trump’s financial troubles in the 1990s, he converted the mansion into a revenue-earning club, but he still maintains a private residence there.
The “Winter White House” closed for the season in May, though Trump still took his time before he made his way to a traditional presidential retreat this weekend. He would instead relax at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., which some took to calling “Camp David North.”
This article has been updated since it originally published.
Read more Retropolis: