In honor of President’s Day, writer Stephanie Painter reflects on her family’s White House tour
Following the winter holidays, I pose a question for my children: “Where do you want to vacation next summer?” Each year, they advocate for a week at the beach and a long weekend in Washington, D.C. Are you surprised teenagers would beg for multiple trips to the nation’s capitol?
My daughters aren’t being groomed for internships on Capitol Hill, nor are my husband and I political wonks. However, the four of us find a stimulating home away from home in our nation’s capitol, discovering new sites to explore in this interesting city each visit. We love enjoying the breathtaking view from atop the Washington Monument and biking through the maze of memorials on the National Mall. There’s also fun window-shopping to be had in Georgetown.
Yet despite having vacationed there twice, we still hadn’t managed a visit to the White House. So five months before our scheduled trip, I submitted a tour request through Congressman Steve Cohen’s office. Several weeks before our departure, we received approval: “We're on our way to the Red Room!” I announced with delight.
A glimpse into history
On July 1, we arrived early for our morning tour. While waiting in line, my daughter checks online news and learns that photography is permitted on tours, effective today. Like the film character Forrest Gump, we have lucky timing, and once inside the White House, we snap photos in our favorite rooms. Though the White House was rebuilt after the British burned it in 1814, John Adams would still recognize the structure if he were to come across it today.
Along the self-guided tour, you’ll find descriptions of furniture and artwork posted in each room. Secret Service officers also provide extra historical information, we discover. The public tour covers rooms in the East Wing and main White House residence.
First, we peek into the impressive Vermeil Room, which contains a massive 1,575-piece silver collection from the 18th- and 19th- centuries. We learn that the ground-floor rooms were once the domain of White House servants, who probably used this room as a bedroom or storage space. Across the hall, the library holds 2,700 works, all by American authors. I long for a library card that would allow us to explore the many titles.
In the China Room, we search for our favorite presidents’ china and glassware. (I imagine dining with F.D.R.) We admire side chairs once used by President George Washington, ones that traveled here from earlier presidential residences in New York and Philadelphia.
The East Room’s legacy
Upstairs, we tour the East Room, the largest room of the residence and one with a fascinating history. Today, press conferences and bill-signing ceremonies are held here, but during the Civil War, the room rang with the clatter of Union soldiers. It would later hold the nation’s sorrow following Lincoln’s assassination, when the Great Emancipator lay in state here for public viewing on April 18, 1865.
Today, we gather with other tourists near the window, excitedly peering down at the lawn as someone boards a helicopter, perhaps President Obama, though no one can say for certain. After the helicopter leaves, we head to the Green Room, a favorite White House parlor and at one time the dining room of Thomas Jefferson. Here, we find the first work by an African-American artist to be added to the permanent White House collection, Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “Sand Dunes at Sunset, Atlantic City.”
White House Christmas tree
Of course, the girls wonder what room holds the official White House Christmas tree. We learn
that it stands in the Blue Room, honoring the courageous service of troops, veterans, and military families. The grand tree is trimmed with ornaments decorated by military children living on U.S. military bases all over the world. Many are cards with children’s notes of thanks to the troops.
The State Dining Room boasts a commanding portrait of Abraham Lincoln, along with a table that seats 130 guests. “I love seeing where foreign dignitaries come and eat meals,” remarks my 16-year-old. Carved into the fireplace mantel is a quotation from a letter by John Adams: “I Pray Heaven to Bestow the Best of Blessings on THIS HOUSE and All that Shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but Honest and Wise Men ever rule under this Roof.”
These moving words remind us of the fine ideals and democratic spirit we see displayed throughout the residence. We have spent only an hour here, but leave with a deeper appreciation of our nation’s history. We’re also reminded that this home belongs to all of us.
“I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House,” said Abraham Lincoln. “I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.”
HOW TO REQUEST A WHITE HOUSE TOUR
Public tour requests must be submitted through your member of Congress. The self-guided tours are scheduled on a first come, first served basis. Requests can be submitted up to six months in advance and no less than 21 days in advance. Submit your request as early as possible, as a limited number of spaces are available daily. All White House tours are free.