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Key West’s Little White House extends invite to President Obama

Posted May 24, 2009 by the MiamiHerald.com
by Cammy Clark

KEY WEST — President George W. Bush considered coming to Key West a year ago for trade talks with the president of Mexico and prime minister of Canada, but there was a sticky problem.

The Little White House — which got its name during the 11 working vacations President Harry S. Truman spent there — was too hot.

”The White House did a sweep, with 10 people in black suits, including ladies in black dresses,” said Bob Wolz, executive director of the Little White House museum. “But it was like 95 degrees in the building. The president can’t sweat. So they turned us down.”

Now the $300,000 air-conditioning system is operational, part of a seven-year, $1 million historic restoration dedicated last week by George McGovern, the former senator and presidential candidate.

With cool air and new upholstery, the wooing of President Barack Obama has begun. The Key West City Commission, Little White House brass and Democratic U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek all have extended invitations to Obama to use the comfy presidential quarters — complete with phonograph, piano and poker table.

It’s available for a presidential family retreat. Bo can come, too, Key West being dog friendly. Or the place can be used to host world leaders, as in 2001, when then-Secretary of State Colin Powell held peace talks with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

While flying on Air Force One to Mexico City a few weeks ago, Meek gave Obama a blue T-shirt with the slogan: Key West, Home of Presidential Vacations.

Kendrick Meek Jr., 12, bought the shirt as a gift for the president while touring the Little White House, which attracts about 65,000 visitors annually as a museum when not being used by VIP guests.

As Obama held the T-shirt in front of his chest, Meek snapped a picture for his son and invited the president, who grew up with the sea breezes of Hawaii, to check out Florida’s version.

Meek said Obama replied: “Great. It’s good to know there’s a White House in Florida.”

It would be a step back in time. The restoration was meticulous to the Little White House of 1949. That’s when the Navy hired Miami architect Haygood Lassiteur to convert the place Truman’s wife Bess called a ”fishing camp” into a tropical retreat worthy of a president.


”It’s just fantastic what they have done on the grounds and to the building,” said Ken Heckler, 94, a former aide to Truman who has fond memories of picnics on the lawn with burgers and the company of the president’s daughter, Margaret. “I think it would be wonderful if they could persuade President Obama to come down — and all future presidents.”

In 1947, Truman decided to use the vacant Navy house to recover from a nagging cold and exhaustion at the urging of his physician. Truman fell in love with the seven-bedroom, 9,000-square-foot home, spending 175 days of his administration there and writing Bess: “I’ve a notion to move the capital to Key West and just stay.”

Truman got a lot done in the wooden house built in 1890. He enacted legislation, wrote executive orders, met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and developed ideas for the Truman Doctrine that changed U.S. foreign policy.

In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower came to Key West to recover from a heart attack and wrote his State of the Union Address in the house.

In the 1960s, President John F. Kennedy used the home twice, once meeting with the British prime minister before the Bay of Pigs invasion.

In 1974, the Navy abandoned the building. For 12 years, termites and vandals wreaked havoc until it was privately purchased in an auction of 100 buildings.

The Little White House could have been demolished for condos, but then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham phoned new owner Pritam Singh about its historical importance. Singh deeded the home and one acre of botanical gardens to the governor and cabinet of Florida.

”I tried to be helpful,” Graham said last week. “The first person I ever voted for president was Truman. I was in sixth grade.”

The first phase of the restoration was completed in 1991, but Wolz said there were inaccuracies due to time, money and technology. In 2003, the Key West Harry S. Truman Foundation reexamined every detail of the Little White House. A volunteer organization, dubbed Harry’s Girls and Auxiliary, searched the Internet for original lamps, ashtrays and antique telephones with no dials.


The wallpaper was changed from French to American scenes, $23,000 was spent on paint analysis and paintings were replicated from the Beverly Robinson Collection.

Wolz hopes to raise another $200,000 for new carpeting, replication of the banana leaves fabric for the poker room and completion of the gardens.

”And we want a commercial kitchen that looks like 1949, but one a president could use today — to make scrambled eggs or something,” Wolz said.

The foundation’s ultimate goal is to make every room functional for the sitting U.S. president, which would require millions more to move the exhibits, museum store and museum offices into a new Visitors Center next door.

Jimmy Carter visited the Little White House in 1996 and 2007, and Bill and Hillary Clinton spent a weekend there in 2005. Both men visited as former presidents.

Security was much easier in Truman’s era, when the house was inside the secure Navy base.

Now it’s in a residential neighborhood, with only a decorative four-foot fence around its grounds.

When Powell held his peace talks, they were guarded by 38 agents from the Secret Service and 18 from the State Department. ”It would probably take close to 100 Secret Service if Obama came,” Wolz said.

But Meek said it would be worth it: “The house has a lot of history, and Obama has the potential to make it very, very significant again.”

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