Number One Observatory Circle

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Number One Observatory Circle
Number One Observatory Circle; December 2017.jpg
Official home of the Vice President of the United States, photographed in 2017
General information
Address1 Observatory Circle, U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, D.C., United States
Coordinates38°55′23″N 77°03′55″W / 38.9230°N 77.0654°W / 38.9230; -77.0654Coordinates: 38°55′23″N 77°03′55″W / 38.9230°N 77.0654°W / 38.9230; -77.0654
Current tenantsMike Pence, Vice President of the United States and the Second Family
Design and construction
ArchitectLeon E. Dessez

Number One Observatory Circle is the official residence of the vice president of the United States.

Located on the northeast grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., the house was built in 1893 for its superintendent. The chief of naval operations (CNO) liked the house so much that in 1923 he took over the house for himself. It remained the residence of the CNO until 1974, when Congress authorized its transformation to an official residence for the vice president, though a temporary one. In fact, by law, it is still the "official temporary residence of the vice president of the United States". The 1974 congressional authorization covered the cost of refurbishment and furnishing the house.

Although Number One Observatory Circle was made available to the vice president in 1974, more than two years passed before a vice president lived full-time in the house. Vice President Gerald Ford became president before he could use the house. His vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, primarily used the home for entertaining as he already had a well-secured residence in Washington, D.C.,[1] though the Rockefellers donated millions of dollars' worth of furnishings to the house. Vice President Walter Mondale was the first vice president to move into the house. Every vice president since has lived there.[2]

The vice presidential mansion was refurbished by the United States Navy in early 2001, only slightly delaying the move of then-vice president Dick Cheney and his family.


Early History[edit]

The Queen Anne style house
in 1895; built of terracotta brick,
it was unpainted until 1960

The house at One Observatory Circle was designed by architect Leon E. Dessez and built in 1893 for $20,000 (equivalent to $569,111 in 2019) for the use of the superintendent of the Naval Observatory who was the original resident. It was built on 13 acres (5.3 ha) of land which had originally been part of a 73-acre (30 ha) farm called Northview, which the Navy purchased in 1880.[3] It is located only 2.5 miles from the White House.[4] The observatory was moved from Foggy Bottom to its new location the same year the house was completed and twelve observatory superintendents lived in what was then known as The Superintendent's House. In 1928, with the passage of Public Law 630, Congress appropriated it for the chief of naval operations, and in June 1929, Charles Hughes became the first resident of what became known as Admiral's House.[3][5] For the next 45 years, it served as the home of such Admirals as Richard Leigh, Chester Nimitz, and Elmo Zumwalt. The home's exterior was originally dark red brick until 1960, when it was painted "feather" gray. It was changed to white with black shutters in 1963, and now[when?] is cream colored.[6]

Number One Observatory Circle can be seen in the bottom left of this aerial view of the United States Naval Observatory.

In 1966, in response to the John F. Kennedy assassination, Congress passed a law creating "an official residence for the vice president of the United States in the District of Columbia" and designating "approximately ten acres at the United States Naval Observatory" for such use. The exact location was to be determined later by the GAO and the Navy, and construction was to commence on the residence when funding was available once the Vietnam War was over. In the interim, the Secret Service paid for expensive upgrades to the private homes of vice presidents Hubert Humphrey, Spiro Agnew, and Gerald Ford. Agnew lived in his house for only three months in 1973 before resigning; shortly after, he sold it at a large profit, in part because of the upgrades (additional quarters for the Secret Service, fences and a new driveway for example), paid for by the government. This resulted in a minor scandal, and a subsequent investigation showed that it would be cheaper to set up the new vice presidential residence immediately, rather than continue to secure private homes.[citation needed]

Rockefeller and Mondale[edit]

In July 1974, Congress passed a new law to make Admiral's House the "official temporary residence of the vice president of the United States" effective upon the termination of service of the incumbent chief of naval operations. Work began on preparing Admiral's House to be the temporary vice president's residence later that fall, after Richard Nixon's resignation and move of the CNO to Quarters A at the Navy Yard.[citation needed] Elmo Zumwalt was the last chief of naval operations to live in Number One Observatory Circle before it became the official residence of the vice president. For Zumwalt, not pleased with the choice, this was reason enough to challenge Virginia senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. in the 1976 Senate election.[7]

The 1974 renovation replaced and updated building systems and increased the size of several rooms by removing internal walls. As a part of this renovation, interior trim was painted white and the walls a palette of mostly neutral colors. Little consideration was given to historic preservation with interior or exterior spaces, and no attempt was made at restoration of any interior space to its appearance at the period of construction or early use. The 1961 era white paint on the exterior was retained. Second floor shutters, which appear in an 1895 photograph, were reinstalled.

Vice President Walter Mondale and his wife host President and First Lady Carter in 1977

The house formally opened as the vice presidential residence in September 1975.[8] Vice president Gerald Ford would have been the first resident if President Richard Nixon hadn't resigned, leaving the White House to Ford.[9] The new vice president Nelson Rockefeller chose to live in his larger private home instead and used Admiral's House only for entertaining.[10] In January 1977, Walter Mondale became the first vice president to live in the house, and it has served as the home of every vice president since.[11]

Later vice presidents[edit]

Instead of building a new vice presidential residence, One Observatory Circle continued to have extensive remodels. In 1976, the Navy spent $276,000 to replace 22 window units with steam heat and central air conditioning; the leaky roof was replaced in 1980 with slate. The Bushes raised $187,000 for carpeting, furniture and upholstery when they arrived in 1981, and the next year the Navy spent $34,000 to repair the porch roof. Repairs to interior and exterior walls damaged by water seepage amounted to $225,000 and $8,000 more was spent to build a small master bedroom. Dan Quayle delayed his move in by a month in 1989 for an extensive $300,000 remodelling that included a rebuilt third floor with bedrooms suitable for children, a wheelchair-accessible entrance and an upgraded bathroom off the vice president's room.[12] A putting green was added in 1989 and a swimming pool, hot tub, and pool house in 1991 – all paid for by private donations. A 525-square-foot (49 m2) skylit exercise room was added to the rooftop around that time, and numerous security enhancements were also performed.[6]

The Navy, responsible for upkeep on the residence, decided in 1991 that Congress was never going to build a permanent vice president's residence (ostensibly next door to Admiral's House) and opted to substantially remodel and repair the house. Al Gore agreed to delay his move into the house by nearly six months in 1993 to allow for the largest renovation of the house since 1974.[13] The $1.6 million repair job replaced the heating, air conditioning and plumbing, removed asbestos, rewired the electrical, replaced the ventilation systems, restored the porch, and upgraded the family quarters on the second floor.[citation needed]

During his five years at the residence, Vice President Bush hosted over 900 parties.[14]

In 1991, during the tenure of Vice President Dan Quayle, a non-profit organization, the Vice President's Residence Foundation, was founded to raise public funds to redecorate the residency. Quayle also added an exercise room and a pool to the house.[4][note 1]

Second Lady Karen Pence added a beehive to the grounds in 2017.[16]

Architecture and decoration[edit]

Queen Anne style[edit]

A broad porch wraps around the front of the house, photographed during the tenure of Vice President Al Gore.

The house is built in the Queen Anne style popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Hallmarks of the Queen Anne style are an asymmetrical floor plan, a series of rooms opening to each other rather than a common central hall, round turret rooms, inglenooks near fireplaces, and broad verandas wrapping the ground floor, all of which are found at Number One Observatory Circle.

When the house was constructed, its exterior was faced in terracotta brick. The wood trim was painted in a warm putty-gray, and the wooden porch in a combination of the putty-gray and white. Window frames and mullions were painted the same gray, and shutters were painted olive green. The interior was furnished mostly with the personal furnishings of the Naval Observatory superintendent, and later those of the chief of naval operations. Period photographs of the interior show middle-class nineteenth-century furnishings in a variety of styles, including Eastlake. Walls were covered in patterned wall-papers.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, Victorian-style architecture had begun to fall out of fashion. Many houses that were originally built in brick, or in wood with complex painting, were simplified and "colonialized" by being painted white. This frequently happened inside as well as outside, and substantial wood millwork of mahogany, quarter-sawn oak, American chestnut and walnut were often painted over in white to "lighten" rooms and make them feel more contemporary. In 1961 the exterior of the house was painted white, the color it still retains.


The three-story brick house is compact, 39 by 77 feet (12 m × 23 m), with 9,150 square feet (850 m2) of floor space.[citation needed] The house's first floor has a dining room, garden room, living room, lounges, pantry kitchen, reception hall, sitting room, and veranda. The second floor contains an additional bedroom, a den, a master suite, and a study. The attic, once the servants' quarters, now houses four bedrooms. The main kitchen is located in the basement.[4]

Interior furnishings[edit]

The residency's furnishings can be seen while Vice President Walter Mondale hosts President Jimmy Carter (top in 1977) and while Vice President Mike Pence hosts Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (bottom in 2020).

Most of the furnishings placed in the house following the 1974 renovation were twentieth century copies of either colonial or Federal style pieces. A notable exception was a bed placed in the house by Nelson Rockefeller. The bed was designed by surrealist artist Max Ernst. Called the "cage" bed, the headboard had the form of a Greek pediment, and the baseboard a lower version of a pediment.[17][18] The Rockefellers twice offered the bed permanently to the house but it was turned down both by Vice President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. On visiting Barbara Bush at the house, Mrs. Rockefeller offered her the bed, and Mrs. Bush responded "you are always welcome in this house, but there's no need to bring your own bed." The Rockefellers did leave a lithograph called "The Great Ignoramus", several antique Korean and Japanese chests, and nearly a dozen other pieces.

When the Mondales occupied the house, Joan Mondale introduced more saturated upholstery and wall colors and contemporary art. Like the Rockefellers, the Mondales brought some Asian antiques into the house. The Bush family, working with interior decorator Mark Hampton, used a palette of celadon, lime, and light blue. The Quayles removed the lime green and used off-white. The Gores oversaw a complete redecoration, the addition of a new dining-room table, new furniture for the library, and a substantial renovation of the grounds and porches to make them more suitable for outdoor entertaining. Immediately before the Cheneys moved in, some needed work on the air conditioning and heating was performed and the interiors were repainted. The Cheneys brought several pieces of contemporary art into the house.

Privacy and security[edit]


Unlike the White House, Number One Observatory Circle does not offer any public tours.[4]

Underground bunker[edit]

In December 2002, following the September 11 attacks, neighbors of the Number One Observatory Circle, then inhabited by Cheney, complained of loud "blasts" and construction noises. Occurring several times and lasting up to five seconds, the vibrations were able to knock mirrors off the walls of some nearby residences. Neighbors who complained about the construction received a letter from the observatory's superintendent reading, "Due to its sensitive nature in support of national security and homeland defence, project specific information is classified and cannot be released." It was widely speculated that a nuclear bunker was being constructed.[19][20][21]

In 2009, recently inaugurated Vice President Joe Biden reportedly revealed the existence of an underground "9/11" bunker beneath the house.[22][23] Elizabeth Alexander, Biden's press secretary, explained the following day, "What the vice president described in his comments was not—as some press reports have suggested—an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs work space in the residence, which he understood was frequently used by Vice President Cheney and his aides."[23]

See also[edit]

  • Blair House – the official state guest house for the president of the United States
  • Camp David – country retreat for the president of the United States
  • White House – the official residency of the president of the United States


  1. ^ Vice president Joe Biden has shown great appreciation for Quayle's addition. In 2010, he called Quayle his "favorite vice president" due to the pool,[4] and, after leaving the house in 2017, told the incoming Pences, "you’re gonna love the pool".[15]


  1. ^ Denyer, Charles (May 15, 2017). NUMBER ONE OBSERVATORY CIRCLE The Home of the Vice President of the United States. Cambridge Klein Publishers. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-9987642-0-7. In September 1974, the stately Queen Anne-style home on the grounds of the Observatory formally opened as the home of the vice president of the United States, but with no tenant, since the sitting vice president, Nelson Rockefeller, decided to stay put at his luxurious mansion in Northwest DC.
  2. ^ "The Vice President's Residence". Archived from the original on October 21, 2009.
  3. ^ a b Cleere, Gail S. (1990). The House on Observatory Hill: Home of the Vice President of the United States. Oceanographer of the Navy. p. 39.
  4. ^ a b c d e Weiss, Brennan; Wiley, Melissa (August 20, 2020). "Inside Number One Observatory Circle, the often overlooked but stunning residence where every vice president has lived since 1977". Business Insider. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  5. ^ Cheney, Lynne V. (October 17, 2016). "This Is Where Many Vice Presidents Have Lived". Architectural Digest. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  6. ^ a b Rogers, Patricia Dane (May 13, 1993). "Renovation". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on March 5, 2016. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  7. ^ Bush, B. (2010). Barbara Bush: A Memoir. Scribner. ISBN 9781451603958.
  8. ^ "Happy's happy with new official home". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. September 8, 1975. p. 7.
  9. ^ "The Vice President's Residence & Office". Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  10. ^ "New VP house fit for a Rockefeller". Lewiston Morning Tribune. (Idaho). (Washington Post). September 8, 1975. p. 2A.
  11. ^ "Happy, Nelson Rockefeller open 2nd Washington Home". Sarasota Herald-Times. (Florida). UPI. September 7, 1975. p. 11A. Retrieved December 31, 2015 – via Google News.
  12. ^ Sante, Mike (January 16, 1989). "Renovating Quayle's Official Digs New Bedrooms, A Bath And A Bathtub Are Parts Of The Plan". Philadelphia Inquirer. Archived from the original on January 3, 2016. Retrieved February 9, 2016.
  13. ^ "Gores Move Into Official Home". The Free Lance–Star. July 14, 1993. Retrieved February 16, 2016.
  14. ^ Heil, Emily (October 17, 2017). "Secrets of the vice president's residence revealed in new book". The Washington Post. Retrieved October 3, 2020 – via The Denver Post.
  15. ^ Coyne, Virginia (December 5, 2017). "Inside Homes: The Vice President's Residence". Washington Life Magazine. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  16. ^ "Second Lady Karen Pence, Secretary Perdue Unveil Beehive at Vice President's Residence, and Ask Public to Help Boost Pollinator Population". U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  17. ^ Groppe, Maureen (November 24, 2017). "Fun facts about the vice president's residence and the people who lived there". USA Today. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  18. ^ Charlton, linda (September 9, 1975). "Rockefellers Toss A Housewarming—In 9 Installments". The New York Times. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  19. ^ "Cheney's neighbours stoke bunker rumours". BBC. December 9, 2002. Archived from the original on June 15, 2020. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  20. ^ Nakamura, Davis (December 8, 2002). "Cheney's Home Sending Bad Vibrations". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on October 3, 2020. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  21. ^ Dowd, Maureen (December 11, 2002). "Disco Dick Cheney". The New York Times. Archived from the original on September 10, 2002. Retrieved October 3, 2020.
  22. ^ Passantino, Jonathan (May 18, 2009). "Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker". Fox News. Archived from the original on June 16, 2020. Retrieved May 18, 2009.
  23. ^ a b Silva, Mark (May 19, 2009). "VP bunker exposed--sort of". The Chicago Tribune. Archived from the original on October 3, 2020. Retrieved October 3, 2020.

External links[edit]