Linda Porter didn’t find out who had once owned her house until after she and her husband made an offer on it.
Porter, a program director at the National Institutes of Health with a doctorate in neuroanatomy, was traveling when she received a call from her husband who told her she wouldn’t believe who had lived in the house: Lyndon B. Johnson.
The 36th president bought the brick Colonial in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Northwest Washington for $18,000 in 1943 and lived in it for 18 years, until he became vice president under John F. Kennedy.
“We were excited when we found out,” Porter said. “It’s kind of cool. You wonder who’s been there before, what kind of meetings happened there that might have been important. You feel the history.”
Scattered throughout the District and Virginia are places where presidents lived before or after their time in the White House. A handful of the properties, such as Porter’s, are private. Several are now embassies or ambassador’s residences. Even more of them have been demolished. James A. Garfield and his wife built a house at 13th and I streets that is now an office building. Woodrow Wilson’s home on S Street is a museum. One former president, Bill Clinton, still resides in the District.
Johnson’s former house is a fairly unremarkable center-hall Colonial. Had it not once been home to him and his family, most people probably wouldn’t give it a second glance. But the Johnson connection gives the property a bit of cachet. Before she knew Johnson lived there, Porter was drawn to the house because it is on what she describes as “a beautiful, quiet street in a really nice part of Washington.” Now that she knows the house’s history, it has become even more special to her.
“I was born in the mid-’50s and Johnson was a big part of my young life,” Porter said. “The civil rights movement was huge. I grew up in Boston, and segregation was a big deal there. Kennedy’s assassination leading to Johnson is just an incredibly powerful memory. Johnson was definitely somebody I knew and respected, and knew he had a big part in history.”
Although it was one of several places Johnson lived during his time in Washington, the home merited the title of a chapter in Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Johnson, “Master of the Senate.”
Lady Bird Johnson also referred to the house several times during her oral history interviews that are at the LBJ Presidential Library. She spoke with affection for “my little ordinary house,” saying it “served us so happily for so many years.”
Lynda Robb, the elder of the president’s two daughters and a former first lady of Virginia, shares her mother’s fond memories of the residence.
“It is the first home that I remember in my life in Washington,” she said. “It was the house I grew up in.”
When asked what she remembers about it, Robb’s recollections tumble out. The screen porch where the family ate dinner and played cards and the oversize chaise lounge on the porch where her father sat and read the Congressional Record with his morning cup of coffee. Her mother’s Freedom Garden in the back yard and the flower beds with tulips and daffodils and the forsythia bush in the front yard. Easter egg hunts and soaring high into the air on the backyard swings. Their next door neighbor, a doctor, who had a goldfish pond in his yard. The heavy, red velvet curtains and the big mirror in the living room, probably the influence of Lady Bird’s decorator, Genevieve Hendricks.
She recalls dinner parties attended by House Speaker Sam Rayburn and members of the Texas delegation.
“When Daddy had friends over, I was allowed to sit on the floor and listen,” she said.
In her oral history interviews, Lady Bird said: “On summer nights, I would spread the cloth [on the round table on the small terrace] and we would have things like black-eyed peas and turnip greens from our own garden, and cornbread. The speaker always liked that menu better than any.”
Robb spoke of walking to Ben Murch Elementary School and to Higgers drugstore on Connecticut Avenue and selling Girl Scout cookies in the neighborhood.
She shared a second-floor bedroom that overlooked the back yard with her sister before Luci took the bedroom in the front of the house that had been a guest room. There were also guest and staff bedrooms on the third floor and in the basement.
“We always had people living with us,” she said. “People working for Daddy who needed a place to stay.”
When she and Chuck Robb bought their first home, Lynda said her mother took one look at it and said, “The 30th Place house must be stamped in your memory because this house is so much like the house you lived in.”
After Johnson became vice president, the family moved to a mansion in Spring Valley. Johnson sold the Colonial to Gerald Siegel, who had been an adviser to the senator and would later become legal counsel for The Washington Post. The Siegels remained in the home until 2005, when Porter and her husband bought it.
Before the closing, Robb returned to the home one last time. She was astonished to find that her playroom on the third floor still had her blackboard and the same wallpaper with its barnyard scene. In the basement, the curtains her mother had hung still adorned the windows. Although they were falling apart, she took pieces of the curtains with her and used the fabric as matting for pictures of the family at the house that she gave Luci for her 50th birthday.
“I have so many happy memories of 30th Place,” she said. “It was a wonderful house and I loved it.”
By the time Porter and her family moved into the house, it had fallen into disrepair.
During renovations, which preserved much of the home’s original layout while adding onto the back, a few items from the Johnsons’ time were uncovered, including a penny postcard from Katherine Maki of Cary, Ill., sent to Johnson’s home address warning about communism. Robb said that not only was her family’s home address known, but the phone number was listed. Porter also found a 1951 Topps baseball card of Phil Rizzuto that Robb thinks may have been hers.
Each spring, the back yard is filled with lilies, which Porter thinks, knowing Lady Bird’s passion for flowers, may have been planted by her.
Among the most interesting discoveries were a manual telephone switchboard (think Lily Tomlin as Ernestine the Telephone Operator) and a red phone, which were in the basement.
“There must have been three or four hundred phone lines” coming out of the switchboard, Porter said.
She and her family ignored it until their phone didn’t work one day. The technician who came out said he couldn’t figure out which one was their line because all of the lines were live.
“We had a hard time getting it out for the rehab because the phone company kept saying they were going to charge us this enormous amount of money to take it out,” Porter said. “I finally called them one day and said, ‘We’re going to cut the wires.’ They were out the next day. The contractor threw all of it into the trash. I don’t know what you’d do with it, but I kind of wish it was still here.”
Since moving into the home, Porter has done extensive research on the Johnsons’ time there. She found photos from a Life magazine story of the family, including their beagle, that she hung in the foyer. She also put up a series of images shot by New York Times photographer George Tames titled, “The Johnson Treatment.”
Living in a former president’s home can have its drawbacks. For one, not everyone respects the privacy of the current owners.
Cameron Knight, who resides in the Georgetown home where Kennedy lived just before moving into the White House, told The Post in a 2007 article that curiosity-seekers have peered into windows, stolen items from the yard as souvenirs and climbed over the fence to have a look around. People also have shined lights into the bedrooms at night to take pictures.
Porter hasn’t had to endure such intrusions, although she noted that tour buses used to drive by her house frequently. She thinks it was because J. Edgar Hoover was Johnson’s neighbor, and having two famous people previously living on one street was too good to pass up.
“People will stop every now and then and say, ‘Is this where Johnson lived?’ People know about it,” she said. “It’s fine. No one’s been a problem. They are just kind of curious to see.”