At Stake in Vice Presidential Debate: There's Politics, and Then There's the VP's Residence

By Mary Boone

As Paul Ryan and Joe Biden crisscross the country discussing health care, jobs and the economy, they're campaigning for more than the vice presidency. They're also entrenched in a battle for the right to reside at Number One Observatory Circle (pictured above).

While tourists flock to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to check out public portions of the president's abode, the vice president's residence is not open for public tours. The 9,150-square-foot, three-story Victorian home was built in 1893 (pictured at left in 1895) for the superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory. The home was so impressive that, in 1929, the chief of naval operations booted the superintendent out so that he could live there himself.

New Addition

A dedicated home for the vice president is actually a rather new phenomenon. In 1789, John Adams became the nation's first vice president; for the next 185 years, VPs and their families lived in their own homes or, on occasion, lavish hotel suites. The associated costs and security logistics made this custom increasingly impractical.

Finally, in 1974, Congress voted to make the house at the Naval Observatory the official vice president's residence.

It took another three years before a vice president actually moved into the home. Vice President Gerald Ford became President Ford before he could use it; his vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, already had a lavish Washington, D.C., home and never used the house as his residence, although he did host several parties there. (At right, Rockefeller hosts a dinner party at Number One Observatory Circle for President Ford in 1975.) Rockefeller's enormous wealth enabled him to donate millions of dollars worth of furnishings to the home.

Walter Mondale was the first vice president to move into the home. It has since housed the families of Vice Presidents Bush, Quayle, Gore, Cheney and Biden. Each new resident of the White House is offered a $100,000 decorating stipend, and additional funds are raised privately. There's no such allowance for vice presidents; donations to the nonprofit Vice President's Residence Foundation pay for decorating expenses.

Personal touches

During the Dan and Marilyn Quayle years, foundation funds were used to add a swimming pool and carry out renovations that made the property wheelchair accessible. (At left, President Ronald Reagan visits Vice President George H.W. Bush at Number One Observatory Circle in 1981.)

Al and Tipper Gore moved into the mansion with four children -- one in college and three still at home -- and three dogs.

The Gores worked with two well-known designers to update the home: Albert Hadley for the interiors and Ben Page for the gardens. The Gores gravitated toward warm yellows and reds. They used the house to showcase an eclectic collection of antiques -- some they brought with them, some borrowed from the State Department. Still other furniture belongs to the residence, including an Empire dining room table donated by Rockefeller and American crafts collected by Joan Mondale. The Gores also had hedges planted around the home, so that it isn't so visible from the street, and worked to replace non-indigenous species on the 72-acre grounds with native plants.

Dick and Lynne Cheney (pictured at left at the vice president's residence in 2002) preferred a palette that was clean and light: pale celadon, taupe, off-white. Washington designer Frank Babb Randolph guided them through the process of reupholstering furniture, shopping for rugs and creating custom window treatments. Veeps and their families are allowed to borrow artwork from national galleries and museums; Lynne Cheney, in particular, relished this privilege and did most of her "shopping" at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.

As for the most recent resident of One Observatory Circle, Vice President Biden is said to be particularly fond of the home's outdoor entertaining areas. Chatting with reporters prior to an April 2010 luncheon with foreign leaders, Biden quipped that he'd never have anything bad to say about Quayle, his often-mocked predecessor, because Quayle was responsible for having the pool installed at the vice presidential estate.

See more on Zillow:
Homes of Former Presidents
Vacation Homes of Romney and Obama
Homes of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama

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VP Debate Will Likely Feature More Fireworks
VP Debate Will Likely Feature More Fireworks