I found myself downtown with an hour to kill. I decided to begin my museum project right then and there. As the bells were tolling noon, I rounded the corner and found myself in front of the White House. Where better to begin?
I'd first seen the White House from this spot - standing in Lafayette Park looking toward the front - when I was quite young. I remember being shocked at how accessible it all seemed. Barred gates, sure. Snipers on the roof, sure. But the fact remained that I, and an assortment of humanity, were milling about hardly a stone's throw from the President's seat of power. (I'm sure the snipers would have something to say about actual stone-throwing.)
The crowds before the gates were a curious combination of regulars and visitors. Tourists were snapping pictures of an obliging Connie, the Old Faithful of protestors. In front of the gates, two bike cops were talking to a blind woman cradling a pigeon against her chest. A man went past talking into his cell phone like a mike. Handsome South Asian familes posed for pictures under the statues. Federal workers hurried by - men in suits with their jackets off, walking with their bodies pitched towards each other to signal that they were in a meeting despite being technically walking through a park.
There clearly was some way to visit the White House - loose-walking tourists were clearly visible on its steps - but I had no idea what that way might be. The signs that dotted the front walk were mostly of the "YOU ARE HERE" variety. "Yes, I know I'm here," I grumbled to myself. "How do I get there?" Eventually I spotted a marker on the map for the White House visitor center, five blocks away, and set off for it.
That alone must reduce the load of casual visitors the White House bears. There's no readily discernable flow from the park to the visitors' center. The center itself is a single room, but one set up as a White House museum exhibit. The walls of the large room are lined with little cubicles focusing on different aspects of White House life.
There seemed to be no particular flow to the information. Some displays presented White House objects (like the desk made from recycled construction materials, reputedly by the White House's original architect himself) others presented a view of the sorts of events that take place there (like Charles and Diana looking supremely uncomfortable during a meeting with the Reagans). The objects and the photographs were often interesting in themselves, but the narrative accompanying them set new heights in banality. "Objects like this enhance the historical character of the White House." Really?
I learned a few new things, largely to do with the home-economic bureaucracy of running the residence of Presidents. For instance, each one gets his own china service. (I'd make the obligatory "China service" joke except that Google made it for me while I was searching for images under "china service white house") Anyway, what do they do with all the leftover china when the president leaves? I also learned such domestic tidbits as that Mary Todd Lincoln overran her $20,000 decorating budget, Julia Gardiner Tyler introduced the waltz, and Harding wore some spectacular top hats.
I kept thinking that it would be interesting to see a display focusing on how a given space has changed through the years, and this was actually gratified. A station presented the character, function, and changing appearance of the Green, Red, and Blue rooms. Like most of the White House (at least to judge by the visitor's center) they're each a farrago of styles, but even in their chaos they change over the years.
I never got beyond the visitor center, for as I discovered at last, the only way to get into the White House itself is to go through your Member of Congress, not more than 6 months and not less than 30 days in advance. So when I went home I wrote to Eleanor Holmes-Norton requesting a tour. I requested one of the Capitol and the Pentagon while I was at it. Apparently the wait is several months, so you'll probably be waiting a while to hear the results.
Place: White House - Lafayette Park and Visitor Center
Pros: The majesty and absurdity of trying to combine history with livability.
Cons: It's not nearly as accessible as it looks.
Definitely Check Out: Visitors staring across the lawn and trying to spot the roof snipers.
Rank: 4/10 squirrels