- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Imagine you’re Harry S. Truman and you’ve arrived in Washington for the first time. You’re not a president with a good-looking house just waiting for you; it’s 1935 and you’re a newly minted Democratic senator from Missouri. What’s your first order of business?

Why, to find digs, of course. Where to find an inexpensive place to live that’s not just close to the seat of power but is surrounded by congenial souls?

It’s the dilemma faced by every new kid on the Washington block, many of them future or former presidents who landed in the nation’s capital with heads more filled with political agendas than domestic details.

And it’s a Presidents Day story to be explored Sunday by historian Anthony Pitch as he ventures well away from the White House in a tour of lesser-known presidential homes here for the Smithsonian Resident Associates.

“There are lots of tours in Washington,” says Mr. Pitch, recognized for his tours related to the War of 1812 and the Lincoln assassination. “This one gets people away from the monuments and memorials to places where they would never go.”

So forget the standard visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. If that’s all you’ve seen, you haven’t really experienced all there is to know about the presidents, their wives, and their lives in Washington.

Before they were presidents

Harry Truman and his family found the answer to the newcomers’ dilemma at Tilden Gardens on upper Connecticut Avenue at Tilden Street Northwest, one of Washington’s grand old buildings.

But his stay there was short-lived; wife Bess preferred Missouri and quickly decamped with daughter Margaret, leaving the freshman senator to lead a bachelor existence (a lonely one, to judge by his plaintive letters home to Bess) in a string of apartments.

They included Sedgwick Gardens at 3726 Connecticut Ave. NW, the Carroll Arms at 301 First St. NE, the Warwick at 3051 Idaho Ave. NW, 3930 Connecticut Ave. NW — and finally 4701 Connecticut Ave. NW, where he was living as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president in 1945 when he got the call that told him FDR had died.

“He had a poker date that day,” Mr. Pitch says. “But even with all the excitement, he remembered to cancel it.”

Other “new kids” had similar problems settling in. Franklin Roosevelt came to Washington in 1913 as the newly appointed assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson; he and his wife Eleanor turned for help to Mrs. William Sheffield, “Auntie Bye,” cousin Theodore Roosevelt’s sister.

The family sublet her house at 1733 N St. NW, east of Dupont Circle, now the site of the Topaz Bar. Auntie Bye’s house came complete with a postage-stamp-sized lawn where Eleanor liked to have breakfast — but it didn’t take long before FDR’s mother, Sara, put her own mark on the place.

“Dined at 1733 N Street,” Sara wrote after her first visit there. “Moved chairs and tables and began to feel at home.”

The Roosevelts stayed there until 1918, when they moved to their own place at 2131 R St. NW in Kalorama — just in time for the real action across the street at 2132, the home of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. On Jan. 2, 1919, a couple of bomb-throwers attempted to take Palmer out.

“It flattened the chair in which he was sitting,” Mr. Pitch says. “Luckily, he had just gone to bed.”

The Eisenhowers faced comparatively pricey Washington on military pay. When Dwight D. Eisenhower came here as a young Army officer in 1927 to serve with the American Battle Monuments Commission and later in the office of the assistant secretary of war, he and his wife Mamie lived at the Wyoming Apartments at 2022 Columbia Road, north of Dupont Circle.

It was one of the grandest of the pre-World-War-I apartment buildings, Mr. Pitch says, and the couple scrimped.

“He would walk 12 blocks from the streetcar stop to save a dime, and she shopped at the PX at Fort McNair,” Mr. Pitch says.

It was no easier in the old days. Abraham Lincoln, new in town in 1847 as a Whig member of the House from Illinois, finally found a spot at Mrs. Sprigg’s boarding house on Carroll Row, at the northeast corner of First and A streets Southeast, directly in front of the Capitol. Home to like-minded Whigs and such an abolitionists’ haven in the 1840s that it was dubbed “Abolition House,” it fell to the wrecking ball in 1887 and is now the site of the Library of Congress.

Traces of the office

Other houses have a more incidental connection to a president. After the President’s House (as the White House was called at the time) was burned during the War of 1812, James Madison moved into the Octagon House. This imposing home, which still stands at 1799 New York Ave. NW, is considered among the best examples of Federal style architecture in the country.

Designed by William Thornton, an architect of the U.S. Capitol, the place was home to the Tayloe family, who offered the house to their friends the Madisons. The Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812, was signed in the circular room above the entrance.

Ulysses S. Grant left his mark on numerous Washington buildings. While president, he liked to stroll over to the Willard Hotel after a day at work and unwind in the lobby with a brandy in one hand and a cigar in the other. So many importunate individuals came to plead their cases with him during this time that the practice gave rise to a new word — lobbying.

Grant and his wife, Julia, also had other homes in Washington. Between 1865 and the beginning of Grant’s presidency in 1869, the Grants lived at Second and I streets Northwest. This was Douglas Row, a group of three pressed-brick mansions that had been built by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas just before the Civil War. (Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman lived next door.)

The row, which is featured in James Goode’s “Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings,” also was home to James Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge, a losing candidate in the presidential election of 1860 and later a Confederate general.

One former Grant home that still stands is located at 3238 R St. NW. Described by the American Institute of Architects as “bombastically Victorian,” the home was owned by Mrs. Alfred Vernon Scott of Alabama, who returned to her home state when the Civil War broke out. Renters included Union Gen. Henry Halleck, who angered the neighbors when he erected a guardhouse on the property, and Gen. Grant himself, who used the place as a summer retreat.

According to Mr. Pitch, Mrs. Grant found the home “large but not comfortable,” so the family removed to the I Street location.

All around the town

John F. Kennedy lived in so many places in Washington that he may actually merit a tour all his own. Domestic arrangements included those at 3307 N St. NW, where he was living when he ran for president; 1528 31st St. NW, rented after his 1946 election to the House; 3260 N St. NW in the early 1950s; and 2808 P St. NW in 1957.

But even JFK started his Washington life, while he was a Navy ensign, in a District apartment — the Dorchester at 2680 16th St. NW.

Lyndon B. Johnson and wife Lady Bird also began life in Washington in an apartment in December of 1934, when he was a congressional secretary taking evening classes at Georgetown University Law School. They paid $42.50 a month for their one-bedroom unit at the Woburn at 1910 Kalorama Road in Adams Morgan.

By 1943 they had moved to 4921 30th Place NW in Forest Hills. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover lived across the street. The Johnsons paid $18,000 back then, Mr. Pitch says. In 2005, the house went for $3 million.

William Howard Taft, who became chief justice of the Supreme Court after he left the presidency in 1913, lived at 2215 Wyoming Ave. Although he actually busted more trusts than Teddy Roosevelt, Taft is more known by his weight — 332 pounds at inauguration — and the modifications he made to certain White House accouterments, like his bathtub.

“That must have been some thing to take in and bring out,” says Mr. Pitch. “They probably had to hire extra workers.”

And, of course, there’s even one president who spent dorm time here. That would be William Jefferson Clinton, who spent his freshman year at Georgetown University in Room 225, Loyola Hall.

A hint of scandal

In an age before air conditioning, many presidents preferred life uptown, and some used it to their advantage.

Grover Cleveland, no stranger to personal scandal — the popular song of the 1884 presidential campaign, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa,” was an allusion to an indiscretion with a Buffalo widow — managed to reinvent himself as a family man in 1886 with the help of a young and photogenic wife, Frances Folsom, and a spacious residence, Red Top, which he built in the area now known as Cleveland Park. He also made a $100,000 profit on its sale after he lost the election of 1888.

Warren G. Harding had a house at 2314 Wyoming Ave. NW after he was elected to the Senate from Ohio in 1914. The place was recently featured on HGTV after it was made over.

“He had one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of the republic,” says Mr. Pitch. “But it’s a sensational house.”

Of course, it didn’t help Mrs. Harding that “Wurrin” was carrying on with assorted lady friends. Friendship, the “country home” of Harding partisans Edward and Evalyn Walsh McLean on the site of what is now the McLean Gardens apartments on Porter Street Northwest, was apparently a favorite trysting place.

Homeless presidents

Let’s not forget the presidents who were booted from the White House to make way for bigger and better quarters.

Theodore Roosevelt, the man who boasted that his family had more fun in the White House than any other president’s family, found himself and his brood evicted during the construction of the West Wing. For six months in 1902, the Roosevelts lived at 736 Jackson Place on Lafayette Square.

Truman, too, had to move during the reconstruction of the White House. From 1948 to 1951, the Trumans lived at Blair House across the street. It was there that Truman survived an assassination attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists in November of 1950.

And then there was Woodrow Wilson, who found his first real home only after he left the White House in 1921.

“He never really lived in his own home until this one,” says Frank Aucella, executive director of the Woodrow Wilson House at 2340 S St. NW. “Before he was president he was president of Princeton. He always had housing provided for him.”

Today, the Wilson house, maintained by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is the only presidential home in the District (other than the White House) open to the public. Wilson lived here, in a house his second wife Edith described as a place “fitted to the needs of a gentlemen,” until his death in 1924.

But what makes the house unique are the Wilson’s own possessions, like the Victrola made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, the movie projector (Wilson liked romantic comedies and Tom Mix films) and his 1923 Rolls Royce, bearing Wilson’s initials in Princeton’s colors.

“We want to give a sense of the humanity of the people who lived here,” says Mr. Aucella. “Everything is here in the context of an accurate physical setting.”

Today, the hope remains that future presidents won’t be priced out of their own D.C. digs by the capital’s extra-expensive housing market. After all, the Washington experience doesn’t start — or end — at the White House.

WHAT: “Presidential Homes,” a tour on wheels led by award-winning guide Anthony S. Pitch for the Smithsonian Resident Associates. Includes structures associated with Dwight Eisenhower, Warren Harding, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, James Madison, Richard Nixon, Franklin Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Harry Truman and Woodrow Wilson. No interior visits.

WHERE: Bus leaves from the southeast corner of the Air and Space Museum, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue Southwest.

WHEN: 10:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m. and 1:15-3:30 p.m. Feb. 18

TICKETS: Resident members $43, non-members $58

INFORMATION: Resident Associates’ registration office, 202/252-0012

WHAT: D.C. Sightseeing’s custom tours and seven specialized tours of Washington led by Mr. Pitch

WHEN: Group and custom tours available any time any day by appointment

INFORMATION: 301/294-9514 or www.dcsightseeing.com

Landmarks in history

Anthony Pitch’s Presidents Day tour for the Smith- sonian Resident Asso- ciates takes place Sunday, the day before the holiday. If you can’t make the tour, or just want to piece together your own presidential residential history, several books can get you started.

• “A Walk in the Past: Georgetown”: Mr. Pitch’s guide to the storied neighborhood is currently out of print but is available from sellers of used books, including those who work through Amazon.com. It features a number of presidential homes, including those of John F. Kennedy and Ulysses S. Grant. (Mino Publications, 1997)

• “AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington D.C.”: Christopher Weeks’ guide was commissioned by the Washington Metropolitan Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 1965 and was last updated in 1974. (The Johns Hopkins University Press; third edition, 1994, $19.95)

• “Capital Losses”: James Goode’s chronicle of the cultural history of Washington’s destroyed buildings features a number of no-longer-extant structures associated with presidents in Washington. (Smithsonian, second edition, 2003, list $69.95)

• “Best Addresses”: James Goode’s story of Washington’s apartment buildings features some presidential flats, such as those associated with Harry S. Truman. (Smithsonian, 2003, $65)

• “Crete and James: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield”: Edited by John Shaw, the 300 letters in this work cover the years 1853-1881 and contain references to the building of the Garfield house in the 1870s. (Michigan State University Press, 1994, $44.95)

• The Library of Congress: The library’s American Memory site contains photographs, documents and other material related to America’s presidents. See memory.loc.gov.

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