Number One Observatory Circle

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Number One Observatory Circle, official home of the Vice President of the United States, photographed in 2003.
The entry foyer at Number One Observatory Circle. Lynne Cheney gives a tour of the Naval Observatory to relatives of former Vice President Walter Mondale. The Mondales were the first full-time family of the Naval Observatory in 1977.
The house in 1895. The Queen Anne style house was built of terracotta brick and originally unpainted. In 1961 the house's brick face was painted white.
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller (right) and his wife Margaretta Murphy (second on left) entertain President Gerald Ford (left) his wife Betty (second on right) and their daughter Susan (center) at the Naval Observatory on September 7, 1975.
President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan visit Vice President George H. W. Bush and Second Lady Barbara Bush in the residence.
The Library at Number One Observatory Circle. Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney entertain his then Chief of Staff for the Vice President Lewis "Scooter" Libby (left) and his wife Harriet Grant (second on right) and former Vice President Dan Quayle (right) and his wife Marilyn Quayle (second on left) in the first floor library at the Naval Observatory Dec. 4, 2001.
A broad porch wraps around the front of the house, photographed during the tenure of Vice President Al Gore.

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.

Before that time, the Vice President lived in their own home.

Although Number One Observatory Circle was made available to the Vice President in 1974, three 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., though the Rockefellers donated millions of dollars 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.[1]

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.


The house at One Observatory Circle was designed by architect Leon E. Dessez and built in 1893 for $20,000 for the use of the superintendent of the Naval Observatory who was the original resident. It was built on 13 acres of land that had originally been part of a 73-acre farm called Northview, which the Navy purchased in 1880. 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 Frederick "Handlebars" Hughes became the first resident of what would then become known as Admiral's House.[2] For the next 45 years it served as the home of such notable Admirals as Chester W. Nimitz and Elmo Zumwalt. The home was originally dark red brick. Then in 1960, it was painted "feather" gray and, in 1963, white with black shutters. Now it is cream colored.[3]

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 by GAO and the Navy later, 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 R. Ford. Agnew only lived in his house for three months before resigning, and shortly thereafter 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. 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 temporary Vice-President's residence later that fall, after Nixon's resignation and the CNO was moved to Quarters A at the Naval Yard.

The house formally opened as the vice presidential residence in September 1975. However, Nelson Rockefeller, the vice president at the time, chose to live in his larger private home instead and only used Admiral's House for entertaining. 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.[4]

Another Vice-Presidential residence has not been built, but One Observatory Circle has had extensive remodels. In 1976, the Navy spent $276,000 to replace 22 window units with steam heat and central air conditioning. In 1980, the leaky roof was replaced with slate. The Bushes raised $187,000 for carpeting, furniture and upholstery when they moved in in 1981, and the next year the Navy spent $34,000 to repair the porch roof. $225,000 was spent to repair interior and exterior walls damaged by water seepage, and $8,000 more to build a small master bedroom. In 1989, new Vice President Dan Quayle delayed his move in by a month for an extensive $300,000 remodeling that included a rebuilt third floor with bedrooms suitable for children, a wheelchair-accessible entrance and an upgraded bathroom off the Vice Presidents room.[5] 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 skylit exercise room was added to the rooftop around that time. During this time numerous security enhancements were also performed.[3]

By 1991, the Navy, which was responsible for upkeep on the residence, decided that Congress was never going to build a permanent Vice-President's residence (ostensibly next door to Admiral's House) and decided to substantially remodel and repair the house. Incoming Vice President Al Gore, Jr. agreed to delay his move into the house by nearly 6 months to allow for the largest renovation of the house since 1974.[6] 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.

Architecture and decoration[edit]

Queen Anne style[edit]

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.

1974 renovation[edit]

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.

Interior furnishings[edit]

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 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. Sculptural foliage similar to olive or laurel leaves wrapped around the posts. The seal of the Vice President of the United States was incorporated into the headboard. 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.

The three-story brick house—completed in April 1893—is compact, 39 by 77 feet (12 m × 23 m), with 9,150 square feet (850 m2) of floor space. On the ground floor are a reception hall, living room, sitting room, sun porch, dining room and small pantry, and lavatories added later to the north side. The second floor contains two bedrooms, a study, and a den. The third floor attic was originally servants' quarters and storage space. The kitchen was placed in the basement, along with a laundry room and other storerooms.

Underground bunker[edit]

On May 17, 2009, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift reported that Vice President Joe Biden revealed that there is an underground "9/11" bunker under the house.[7] It was speculated that the bunker was built in December 2002 when neighbors complained of loud construction noises. Elizabeth Alexander, the Vice President’s spokesperson, 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."[8]

Depictions in the media[edit]

When compared to the White House, One Observatory Circle is obscure and little known. It is rarely a backdrop for political demonstrations.

During the brief feud between then-Vice President Quayle and fictional television news reporter Murphy Brown, an episode of the sitcom featuring the character included a scene of a truckload of potatoes dumped at what is meant to be the gate to the Vice President's residence as a silent protest.

The off-post area immediately beyond the fence was the site of televised protests in support of Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid during the Florida recount in November 2000.

Scenes of the HBO series Veep occasionally take place in and in front of the house. A portion of the premiere episode of Commander in Chief was set in upstairs residence.

In the tenth episode of the second season of the TV series Homeland, Nicholas Brody goes to the Naval Observatory to find that Walden is in a meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He sneaks into Walden's office and text messages the serial number to Abu Nazir, only after confirming that Carrie Mathison has been set free.

In House of Cards, Frank Underwood refuses to move to One Observatory Circle when he is to be sworn in as Vice President. He instead opts to remain living in his own private residence, which is renovated and the Secret Service has numerous security features installed.

See also[edit]

  • Blair House – the official state guest house for the President of the United States


  1. ^ "The Vice President's Residence". 
  2. ^ Cleere, Gail S. (1990). The house on Observatory Hill: home of the vice president of the United States. Oceanographer of the Navy. p. 39. 
  3. ^ a b Rogers, Patricia Dane (13 May 1993). "Renovation". The Washington Post. Retrieved 11 February 2016. 
  4. ^ "Happy, Nelson Rockefeller open 2nd Washington Home". Sarasota Herald-Times. 7 September 1975. Retrieved 31 December 2015. 
  5. ^ Sante, Mike (16 January 1989). "Renovating Quayle's Official Digs New Bedrooms, A Bath And A Bathtub Are Parts Of The Plan.". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 9 February 2016. 
  6. ^ "Gores Move Into Official Hom". The Free Lance Star. 14 July 1993. Retrieved 16 February 2016. 
  7. ^ Passantino, Jonathan (May 17, 2009). "Biden Reveals Location of Secret VP Bunker". Fox news. Retrieved 18 May 2009. 
  8. ^ "Did Biden expose secret location of VP's bunker?"

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°55′23″N 77°03′55″W / 38.9230°N 77.0654°W / 38.9230; -77.0654