Where will Donald Trump spend Inauguration Eve? Will he embrace tradition and stay at Blair House? Or will he opt for something grander – say, his eponymous luxury hotel just a few blocks away?
For the past 40 years, every president-elect has spent the night before his inauguration at the president’s guesthouse across the street from the White House. Inauguration Day usually begins with a private breakfast for family and friends at the historic mansion, followed by a church service and a brief meeting at the White House with the outgoing president and first lady before the drive to the Capitol for the swearing-in.
Trump’s inaugural committee hasn’t disclosed his plans for the days leading up to the inauguration. “We don’t have (any) announcements to make at this point,” spokesman Alex Stroman said.
If Trump decides not to stay at Blair House, he’ll be breaking with a tradition that Jimmy Carter started in December 1976. Carter was eager to get to work, and the house was his Washington base of operations. Since then, every president-elect has spent the last few days before his swearing in at 1651 Pennsylvania Ave. Nancy Reagan thought the mansion needed some sprucing up, the entire Bush clan took the place over twice, and the Clintons and the Obamas spent their last nights as private citizens there.
Most of the time, the house, which is operated by the State Department, serves as a very busy, very fancy hotel for foreign leaders and other VIP guests. But every few years, it plays a small but symbolic role during the inauguration. The president-elect signs an official guest book on the morning he takes office, marking his new role as head of state, as well as the importance of international diplomacy. In the afternoon, the State Department hosts a reception and a parade viewing for ambassadors and other diplomats to celebrate the country’s peaceful transition of power.
Since Blair House is not open to the public, the White House Historical Association has mounted a small, free exhibit about the inaugurations at its Jackson Place headquarters (just around the corner) to complement its new book on the guesthouse’s history.
“In many ways, it’s more exclusive than the White House,” says exhibit curator John Botello. “There are no public tours. This is the president’s formal guest residence, where foreign heads of state stay when they visit the president.”
The house was built in 1824 by Joseph Lovell, the army surgeon general, in what was then an open field across from the White House. Publisher Francis Preston Blair, part of Andrew Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” bought it 13 years later, and it stayed in the Blair family for more than 100 years. Presidents eager to slip away from the pressures of the White House crossed the street to socialize with the Blairs and other friends: Abraham Lincoln was especially fond of Montgomery Blair, whom he made postmaster general.
Over time, the single house expanded into four connecting townhouses, and it now boasts 70,000 square feet, 14 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, four dining rooms and a full-time staff. The main suite, where presidents-elect typically stay, has two bedrooms, two baths, a sitting room and two fireplaces.
In the 1940s, a Blair descendant lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to buy the property as a guesthouse for visiting dignitaries. Heads of states had traditionally been housed at the White House, giving them all-hours access to the first family. Eleanor Roosevelt finally convinced her husband that Blair House was a good idea after Winston Churchill reportedly headed to the couple’s bedroom for a 3 a.m. chat.
In 1942, the federal government paid $150,000 for the house, $33,000 for the furnishings and an additional $90,000 to update the property; President Harry Truman lived in Blair House from 1948 to 1952 while the White House was completely renovated and reinforced.
Carter first signed one of the guest books on Dec. 9, 1976, and stayed there for 13 days in four separate stays, according to State Department records. On inauguration morning, he started what became a presidential ritual: breakfast with his family, then a church service before going to the White House for morning coffee.
Ronald and Nancy Reagan spent six nights there in 1981. “Blair House really needs fixing up,” Nancy Reagan wrote in her diary on Jan. 14. (The first lady would later spearhead a $10 million renovation.)
On the morning of Jan. 20, Nancy woke early, had breakfast and then welcomed her hairdresser. Adviser Mike Deaver arrived at 8 a.m. to brief the president-elect on the Iran hostages and found him peacefully asleep. After calmly eating breakfast and attending a service at nearby St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square, Ronald Reagan headed to the White House, where he found Carter, exhausted from all-night negotiations to release the hostages.
The Bushes always filled the house. In 1989, Blair House hosted George H.W. Bush, Barbara Bush, all their children and spouses, plus 10 grandchildren, for two nights. “Blair House was fairly formal,” George W. Bush told The Washington Post. “Until we moved in.” His father was in a good mood, teasing reporters waiting outside before the family made their way to St. John’s – a routine that his son repeated in 2001.
The Clintons stayed at Blair House for three days. On the morning of Jan. 20, Bill Clinton walked out the door holding a mug of decaffeinated coffee, then headed to a service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church on M Street.
There was a minor kerfuffle when the Obamas came to Washington in 2009: The family hoped to move into Blair House by Jan. 5, when their daughters started school at Sidwell Friends. President Bush, however, had already reserved it for a visit by former Australian prime minister John Howard and other diplomatic events.
Since most presidents-elect had typically stayed there five days or fewer, it may have been a case of bad timing, but the press had a field day over the perceived snub. The Obamas stayed at the Hay-Adams Hotel and switched to Blair House on Jan. 15.
The president-elect and his wife can use the home strictly for rest, or to entertain friends and supporters. A private breakfast for family? Fine. Cocktails for a few hundred? No problem. “They can do whatever they like,” Botello says.
As for Trump, office pools are taking bets on where he’ll choose to stay. We’ll find out who wins on Jan. 19.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Roxanne Roberts