There I was, in the East Room in the White House, slack-jawed with my mouth hanging open. I couldn’t believe it. I felt it was one thing to even be in the White House, but a completely different beast altogether to be standing in such an historic room in what is arguably the most famous residence in the world. And it only took about 30 years for me to get there.
When I was a child my parents drove my sister, brother, and I on a massive road trip along the Eastern Seaboard from Minnesota. A few flashes and snippets of the trip stick in my memory, but nothing all too clear since I was so young. One of the most vivid memories, which is still quite muddled, is being turned away for a tour at the White House. I don’t recall if the tickets were already sold out or if tours just weren’t held that day, but I do recall it never happened.
Fast forward now about thirty years to the present. A gnawing sensation has been eating at my insides for the last few years. And I’ve always known what it is: I’ve seen, experienced, and learned about so many other countries and their histories while essentially ignoring my own. I needed to return to Washington, D.C. I needed to see and learn about my own capitol city and its history. Most of all, I needed to right a childhood disappointment and tour the White House.
Walking through several security checkpoints, it hardly seemed like it was possible the tour was going to happen. I had waited so long for the opportunity to set foot in the White House that it felt like somehow the rug would be pulled out from underneath me. But it wasn’t. And there I was, walking through the Ground Floor Corridor and through the Visitor Entrance and right on into the White House.
I glanced at all of the portraits on the walls, reading different inscriptions, and then looked into my first room – the Vermeil Room. Like all others it is roped off. Viewing is only possible from the main hallway. But I didn’t care. I could still look in and admire the gilded silver and portraits of recent First Ladies in what was once a ground floor billiard room.
From there I crossed the hall to the Library, imagining what it would be like to lounge in a comfy chair reading a book under the chandelier that once belonged to the family of author James Fenimore Cooper. Others waited behind me for their chance of a glimpse, too, but I didn’t care; I was going to take my sweet ol’ time and savor everyone moment of my self-guided tour.
Once I had my fill I crossed the hall to the China Room. I only briefly glanced in there, taking note of some of the patterns on the China in display cases on the walls in the room. Other China was in a separate hutch out in the hallway, and I had already spent a fair amount of time admiring it. So I had no particular interest at looking any longer at more dinnerware.
Like at all properties managed by the National Park Service, I was given a brochure and a map upon entering the White House. I didn’t look at it, though. Instead I opted to be surprised at each turn, not knowing which room I would be in next. So after I was done with the China Room and was directed upstairs by a docent who I assumed was a Secret Service agent, I was absolutely stunned when I stepped into the East Room of the White House.
The East Room is the room of historical rooms to me. It is there where several presidents, including Abraham Lincoln after his assassination, have lain in state. Several ceremonies and weddings – Nellie Grant, Alice Roosevelt, and Lynda Bird Johnson – have also been held. It is there where history is made; a portrait of George Washington saved by First Lady Dolley Madison when the British sacked Washington, D.C. during the War of 1812, burning government buildings as they went, now hangs in the East Room. That portrait, a copy of the original which hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, is one of few decorations in the East Room of the White House, most of it empty and open for special ceremonies.
My imagination swam with the thought of all of the events that have occurred in the East Room. I have seen it on television so many times. As silly as it sounds, standing in the room filled me with a sense of joy. I was simply elated. And by the time I walked out and into the Green Room, I think the docents were relieved they didn’t have to answer any further questions.
After the East Room the Green Room felt like any other parlor. It was interesting, I was excited to walk through it, but I kept stealing glances back at its predecessor. It wasn’t until I entered the Blue Room – the oval room on the second floor which protrudes out from the South Portico on the White House – that I relaxed and once again more thoroughly took in my surroundings. The Blue Room is, after all, where the president greets many guests to the White House. Like the Green Room, a lot of the decorations in the Blue Room are from the early 1800s – portraits of presidents, furniture, and a white marble mantel.
Appropriately enough, the Red Room follows the Blue and Green Rooms on the tour. And just like them, it has had many uses over the years. Now it is used for small receptions, but originally it was where John Adams took his breakfast. It is also where Rutherford B. Hayes took the oath of office in 1877.
The moment of giddiness I experienced when I stepped into the East Room returned when I left the Red Room for the State Dining Room. I still had not opened my brochure at this point – I was too in awe of my surroundings to think of it – so I had no idea this room would be on the tour. It almost seemed unfathomable that such an important room in the White House would be part of a public tour. Yet, without any doubt, there I stood dumbstruck starring at a long table.
I couldn’t believe it. Others came and went, shrugging and hmphing over the room, but there I was admiring the historical importance of the room. And from there, as I struck up a conversation with the docent, I was lucky enough to see the Rose Garden and the Oval Office. It wouldn’t be possible in the summer months with the leaves on the trees, but in the winter I could see from behind the tour rope, across the room, and out through a window on a western wall on the south side of the room right to the windows of the Oval Office and the door to the Rose Garden.
“He’s here today, right?” I asked the docent. He smirked at me.
“I don’t know where he is right now.”
He knew, though. And I knew. The president was in town that day, and would be through the week. I would later see his motorcade pulling back into the White House. But for security reasons, I understood why he could not answer truthfully. For all the docent knew, I was some nut stalking the president. In truth, I didn’t care who the president was – I was just excited to be in such an historically significant property.
I walked out the back of the State Dining Room into a long hallway carpeted with a long red runner. The Entrance and Cross Hall looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. The only thing which was obvious was that it was the end of my tour. It was here, on the north side of the building, where I would exit back out onto Pennsylvania Avenue and to the real world.
As I shuffled my belongings around trying to get situated for the cold weather, I overheard a conversation between another guest and one of the guards. (They were obviously guards, as they were in tactical gear with machine guns.) To clarify what they said, I asked the guard to repeat what he told them, which was that the president will hold news conferences in this room. The camera will be positioned in the door from the East Room and look back down on the hall and the red carpeting. And that is where I remember the hallway from, I thought to myself, from various news announcements presidents have made from what is actually an entrance hallway.
While exiting onto Pennsylvania Avenue, I thought of impressions of White House tours others have passed onto me. Various friends and acquaintances have all said they were disappointed with the tour and that it wasn’t worth the hassle. I certainly beg to differ, believing it was one of several highlights on my trip to Washington, D.C., and thirty-year-long dream come true.
What You Need to Do to Tour the White House:
It’s easy enough to book a White House tour. All you need to do is contact your U.S. Congressional office. Or, if you’re not an American citizen, contact your embassy in Washington, D.C. But you need to do it well in advance, since it’s a first come first served type of deal. I did so a month ahead of my trip, which was still cutting it close, but got away with it because I was there during the slower winter months.