VP Kamala Harris’s new home, the Naval Observatory, has such a cool history

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I feel the same way that I felt for both of Barack Obama’s inaugurations: drunk with happiness and patriotism. Sometimes, I just love American history and the weird little quirks around the executive branch. As an American History-lover, I was surprised by what I did NOT know about the Vice President’s official residence, the Naval Observatory. I thought it had been a long-time residence designated to the second family. But no – the use of the Naval Observatory as an official home for VPs is pretty recent in American history. From this great NY Times piece:

The Naval Observatory sits on a big plot of land: The 128-year-old house at Number One Observatory Circle is the designated home of the vice president of the United States and where Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, are set to live for at least the next four years. Located about two miles from the White House and adjacent to several embassies, the secluded home sits on a 72-acre plot known as the United States Naval Observatory. It is not open to the public.

It really was a Naval Observatory: The 9,000-square-foot Queen Anne-style house, with a library, basement kitchen and several bedrooms, was designed by the Washington architect Leon E. Dessez. It was built in 1893 and was originally intended for the superintendent of the United States Naval Observatory, a scientific agency that moved to the site the same year from its original home in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. Starting in the 1920s and for the next five decades, the house served as the residence for the chiefs of naval operations and their families. Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. was the last Navy official to live in the house, which was designated as the home for vice presidents in 1974.

Before the 1970s, VPs would live in their own homes or hotels: Traditionally, vice presidents had lived in their own homes or in hotels while in office. But the desire for the second in command to have his own residence dates to at least 1923, when the wife of Senator John B. Henderson of Missouri offered a newly built home as the official residence of the vice president, according to The New York Times. The house was described as “imposing” and valued at $500,000. Calvin Coolidge, who served as vice president from 1921 to 1923, lived at a hotel during his tenure and later said in his autobiography that an “official residence with suitable maintenance should be provided for the Vice-President” and that the position “should have a settled and permanent habitation and a place, irrespective of the financial ability of its temporary occupant.”

The cost of adding security measures to each VP’s home was huge: After years of spending thousands on security measures at the private homes of vice presidents — $81,000 for Gerald Ford’s home in Virginia and $245,000 on Spiro T. Agnew’s home in Maryland among others — Congress designated Number One Observatory Circle as “the official temporary residence” of the vice president in 1974. (The “temporary” designation still remains.) It was the first time in history that a home was provided for the second in command. At the time, lawmakers approved $315,000 for repairs, renovations and some furnishings.

Walter Mondale was the first VP to use it as a home: Under President Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale was the first vice president to live in the home, starting in 1977. “Ironically and in parallel as the office of the vice presidency has grown in importance over the years, particularly with the election of Vice President Walter Mondale in 1976, the home has grown considerably also in terms of amenities and security upgrades,” Mr. Denyer said. “Vice President Mondale became probably the most consequential vice president ever to that date. Carter involved him in almost everything.”

Who maintains the home? The Navy still maintains the home, Mr. Denyer said, while the Vice President’s Residence Foundation raises private funds for any redecorating or upgrades to the home. Each vice president and his family have contributed to the evolution of the home, Mr. Purdy said, noting that George H.W. Bush, who was vice president from 1981 to 1989, built a horseshoe pit and a quarter-mile track on the property. His successor, Dan Quayle, installed a swimming pool, which years later received praise from Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, have hosted many private dinners with donors and corporate executives but have made minimal changes to the home, Mr. Denyer said. In 2017, Mrs. Pence unveiled a beehive at the residence.

[From The NY Times]

Mother Pence put in a beehive? That’s actually kind of… okay. Naval Observatory Honey! It actually sounds like a great set up – 75 acres of secluded land about two miles away from the White House, a private pool and a private running track, the property isn’t open to visitors and it’s got lots of space for the Harris-Emhoffs. I actually love the look of the home too, it’s that really beautiful architecture so common in DC and northern Virginia. Also: people are freaking out about the Times “publishing VP Harris’s address.” I mean… I’m concerned for the Harris-Emhoffs safety too, but the Naval Observatory’s address isn’t a secret.

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8 Responses to “VP Kamala Harris’s new home, the Naval Observatory, has such a cool history”

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  1. K says:

    She looks so amazing. Here we go ladies, here we go. Joy 😂

  2. Lissdogmom02 says:

    Cool, thanks for the info I’m a big history nerd too. I love this type of thing & old architecture to boot.

  3. Ariel says:

    Thanks for the history lesson- i had no idea.
    I do love the thought of the Harris-Emhoffs having a grand place to lay their heads, and celebrate as a family.

  4. Laura says:

    Cool read. Thanks for sharing!!

  5. The Recluse says:

    And now Kamala will know what Biden knew: what the heck Cheney had done there during his stay. I remember his neighbors beings ticked off by all the blasting going on there and the damage it was doing to their homes.

  6. dlc says:

    Holy cow, forget the presidency. I want to be vice president and live in that house!

  7. Ashley says:

    On Veep Julia Louis Dreyfus gives a tour of the VP’s residence and when they’re doing walk shots through the foyer she tells the host I hate this place. It’s like living in a f**cking dollhouse. I’ll think of that when the VPs home is mentioned lol. Queen Anne is a pretty typical dollhouse style too. I don’t know how much VEEp tried get right regarding accuracy in its portrayal of the actual home but the front door placement was weird. The land might be cool but the home wasn’t anything special.