1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is one of the most famous addresses in the world, as it designates the location of the White House. Less well-known is 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue. It is the site of Blair House, the place where foreign dignitaries stay when visiting the President of the United States. Quite a few memorable scenes have taken place there.
10. The Beginnings Of Blair House
Calling the building “Blair House” is a bit of a misnomer. Its official name is simply the President’s Guest House and Blair House is just one of four interconnected townhouses. Together, they form a single living quarters comprised of 110 rooms and measuring 70,000 square feet. However, most people and agencies simply refer to the entire complex as “Blair House,” and this includes the U.S. State Department.
There is another small issue with the name. It is known as “Blair House” even today because it stayed with the Blair family for over a century. However, originally it belonged to U.S. Surgeon General Joseph Lovell, who built it around 1824. He sold it to newspaper publisher Francis Preston Blair in 1836. His family owned it until selling Blair House to the government in 1942.
9. The Kitchen Cabinet
Even before Blair House became the official President’s Guest House, there were major political moments taking place inside as the Blairs were frequently involved in the machinations of Washington. Montgomery Blair, for example, was Postmaster General under Abraham Lincoln and hosted the president regularly. His son, Gist Blair, maintained relationships with Teddy Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and FDR. Unsurprisingly, though, it was the patriarch of the Blair family who was the most influential.
Francis Preston Blair was a confidant and supporter of Andrew Jackson and played an important role in helping him win the 1828 election. He was a part of Jackson’s so-called “Kitchen Cabinet,” an unofficial group of advisers. He received frequent visits from President Jackson at Blair House.
The role of the Kitchen Cabinet grew significantly following the Petticoat Affair, which started in 1829. Basically, Jackson’s actual Cabinet became split between support for his Secretary of War, John Eaton, and his Vice President, John C. Calhoun, following a rift between the politicians’ wives. The issue was resolved in 1831 when Martin Van Buren, Secretary of State and another member of the Kitchen Cabinet, resigned his position. This gave Jackson a reason to re-order the Presidential Cabinet and get rid of all the Calhoun supporters.
8. Churchill’s Visits to Washington
At the beginning of 1942, the State Department began leasing Blair House in order to accommodate foreign dignitaries. By the end of the same year, President Franklin Roosevelt persuaded the government to allow $150,000 in spending in order to purchase the townhouse outright and turn it into the presidential guest house.
Officially, this was done in order to deal with overcrowding at the White House. Up until that point, it was customary for the president’s guests to spend their first night at the White House and then relocate to a hotel or embassy for the rest of their stay. However, during World War II, there were numerous politicians, diplomats, advisers, heads of state, and generals prowling the halls of the White House and extra accommodations were necessary.
Chief among them was Winston Churchill, who made frequent visits to the White House at this time. He exhibited a sense of familiarity which may have irked Eleanor Roosevelt a bit. He had a habit of wandering the corridors at odd hours dressed in his nightgown. Unofficially, Eleanor is the one who convinced her husband that a guest house was needed. According to Franklin Roosevelt Jr., he recalls one morning when his mother ran into Churchill at 3 a.m. Cigar in hand, the Prime Minister was headed towards FDR’s bedroom to wake him up for a conversation. Mrs. Roosevelt persuaded him to wait until breakfast.
7. Boris Yeltsin Visits Blair House
Considering the high profiles of the diplomats who usually stay at Blair House, the Secret Service is there to ensure the safety of the guests. However, despite strict protocols in place, some dignitaries still prefer to do their own thing. In 1995, for example, the Secret Service was twice outmaneuvered by a drunk, naked Boris Yeltsin.
The Russian President was staying at Blair House during a visit to Bill Clinton. As he was known to do, Yeltsin enjoyed a few alcoholic beverages. In the middle of the night, he snuck out of the house dressed only in his underwear. Secret Service agents went looking for him and found the nude president walking down Pennsylvania Avenue trying to hail a cab. As he later explained, Yeltsin got hungry and went out looking for pizza.
The very next night, the Russian President managed to elude his security detail again. This time, the end result was a bit more serious and could have caused an international incident. Somehow, Yeltsin ended up in the basement of Blair House. A building guard spotted him and mistook him for a drunken intruder. He wanted to take him down but Secret Service agents arrived in time to prevent the president from getting tackled.
6. Is Blair House Haunted?
Many people believe that the White House is haunted by the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. He usually sticks to the Lincoln Bedroom which the president used as his office in his lifetime. Multiple persons, including other presidents and their wives, claim to have felt his presence in there. Others say they looked through the window of the bedroom and saw Lincoln either sitting in bed or at the edge of the bed putting his boots on.
Not to be outdone, the Blair House is allegedly haunted by its own former president. The ghost of Woodrow Wilson still roams the halls of the townhouse. This is according to multiple witnesses including Harry Truman who stayed at Blair House in the 1940s while the White House was being renovated. Typically, Wilson returned from the great beyond to have a sit in a rocking chair.
The 28th President of the United States is quite a busy apparition. Some say that he also haunts the Woodrow Wilson House which would make more sense since he actually died in there. Again, people have reported sightings of the president lounging in a rocking chair.
5. A Wedding At Blair House
With all the different kinds of events that took place at Blair House, it is only fitting that the site was also the location of a wedding.
William T. Sherman was one of the most renowned generals of the Union Army during the American Civil War. He earned both recognition for his military command as well as scorn for the eagerness of his scorched earth policy against Confederate states.
General Sherman tied the knot with Eleanor Boyle Ewing in 1850 and the two had their wedding ceremony at Blair House. President Zachary Taylor was in attendance alongside other prominent politicians. Ellen was Sherman’s foster sister. Her father, Thomas Ewing, first Secretary of the Interior, took in William when he was nine years old after his own father died unexpectedly.
4. Obama Got Turned Away
Besides functioning as the presidential guest house, it is also tradition for presidents-elect to spend the days leading up to their inauguration at Blair House. Things did not work out so well for Barack Obama, who wanted to move into Blair House early prior to his 2009 inauguration.
Presidents-elect typically only stay in the townhouse for a short while before Inauguration Day on January 20. However, Obama wanted his girls to start school in Washington soon after the Christmas holiday. He made a request to the Bush administration to relocate to Blair House at the start of January.
His request was denied. The official response said that it was unavailable. Media outlets reported that it was already booked for Australian Prime Minister John Howard to move into Blair House on January 12. In the end, Barack Obama went to the nearby Hay-Adams Hotel and then transferred to Blair House on January 15.
3. Historically Significant
In 1935, the United States Congress enacted the Historic Sites Act. Its main goal was to organize all the parks and monuments that fell under the purview of the National Park Service. However, it also made it the duty of the government to preserve any sites, buildings, and objects that held some kind of significant historical value.
In 1937, an Advisory Board deemed Blair House to be nationally significant, although it stopped short of declaring it a national historic site. This designation did not come easy. In fact, during the prior decades, owner Gist Blair had to fight hard to prevent the government from razing his beloved home.
In 1916, a federal Public Buildings Commission wanted to level the buildings around Lafayette Square to free up terrain for government use. Their initiative was put on hold due to World War I, but was revived in the 1920s. During the early 1930s, Gist became friends with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and even had him for dinner at Blair House. The president was interested in developing some kind of plan to maintain historic sources throughout the country which, eventually, turned into the aforementioned Historic Sites Act.
Blair made his way to the Advisory Board in 1939 and used his home as the prototype for the first official markers for recognized historical buildings.
2. General Lee At Blair House
Right at the start of the American Civil War, a private meeting at Blair House could have significantly altered the course of the conflict.
General Robert E. Lee was the man who commanded the Army of the Confederacy. While Jefferson Davis might have been the President, it was Lee who generally received the praise for the various military successes of the Southern states.
Before he joined the Confederacy, Lee was a Cavalry Colonel and already enjoyed quite a celebrated reputation. In fact, Lincoln wanted to give him a prominent position in the Union Army. At the behest of the president, Lee went to Blair House and met with Francis Preston Blair, who offered him the command of the defense of the capital.
General Lee declined because he knew his native state of Virginia would soon secede from the Union and he felt it was his duty to take up arms for its protection. He switched sides and joined the Confederacy even though he opposed secession and realized the war would be devastating for both sides regardless of who won.
1. Assassins At Blair House
The most dramatic moment in the history of Blair House occurred On November 1, 1950, when Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate President Harry Truman.
Truman actually spent most of his second term living in Blair House. The White House underwent massive reconstruction between 1949 and 1952. The President became a target for Grisello Torresola and Oscar Collazo, two members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, also known as the “Independistas.”
Nationalistic riots had recently taken place throughout Puerto Rico which were suppressed using the military. The two would-be assassins wanted to attract as much global attention as possible to the efforts of Puerto Ricans fighting for independence. They believed this would best be achieved by killing the president.
They reasoned that Blair House would have much less stringent security than the White House. They were, in fact, correct, but it was still strong enough to foil their assassination attempt. The nationalists simply walked up to the front steps of the townhouse and started shooting. Secret Service agents and police quickly returned fire and Torresola was gunned down on the spot. An agent named Leslie Coffelt was killed in the line of duty.
Collazo was arrested and sentenced to death, although Truman later commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. Two years later, the president actually held a referendum on a new constitution for Puerto Rico. People voted almost 82 percent in favor of staying a “Free Associated State.”