This story was first published on 1/15/2021; it has been updated to reflect new information.
It’s no secret that the White House is the primary residence of the President of the United States, but there is another presidential home (albeit one that is not used by presidents as often) that should be on both design and history aficionados’ radars: the President’s Guest House, also known as Blair House. Although it’s not as well known as the People’s House, the President’s Guest House spares no shortage of fascinating history—including a presidential assassination attempt and interiors designed by legendary decorators Mario Buatta and Mark Hampton. And, with One Observatory Circle, the official residence of the Vide President, undergoing renovations, Blair House is where VP Kamala Harris will live for the near future.
The President’s Guest House consists of four connected townhouses, but it’s often called by the name of just one of the houses. The four dwellings are Blair House, Lee House, Peter Parker House, and 704 Jackson Place. In total, these buildings boast 119 rooms spanning over 200,000 square feet, making this residence even larger than the White House. Blair House is named for Francis Preston Blair, a journalist who was a friend to and supporter of President Andrew Jackson—and one of the home’s first owners, after purchasing it for just $6,500 in 1836.
Since the United States government purchased these four townhouses in 1942, the President’s Guest House is typically used as a place for guests of the president to stay, as its name suggests. There are a few presidents who have inhabited Blair House, though, including Harry S. Truman, who, along with his family and White House staff, lived here from 1948 to 1952, while the People’s House underwent a massive reconstruction. During Truman’s time spent living here, he survived an assassination attempt led by two members of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party.
Other notable figures who have stayed at Blair House include Queen Elizabeth II, Justin Trudeau, Margaret Thatcher, Emmanuel Macron, George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin. Usually, it’s tradition that the president-elect of the United States stays at the President’s Guest House in the days leading up to the inauguration. In fact, it was just confirmed earlier this week that President-elect Joe Biden will be staying at Blair House the night before his inauguration, which will take place next week. Some presidents have stayed elsewhere in the lead-up to their first day as president, like Bill Clinton, who opted to stay at the nearby Hay-Adams Hotel, and Barack Obama, who could not stay at the house due to the fact that the then-prime minister of Australia, John Howard, was already booked there.
Blair House has another long-standing custom—following the death of a former president, members of their family typically stay at this home amid the funeral services. The most recent instance of this tradition occurred in 2018, when the Bush family stayed here after former President George H.W. Bush’s passing.
Blair House—which was built in 1824 for Dr. Joseph Lovell, the first Surgeon General of the United States—is a Federal-style townhouse, much like other edifices seen throughout Washington, D.C. In 1985, its interiors were redecorated by celebrated designers Mario Buatta, Mark Hampton, and Scott Salvator (Buatta’s design associate). Hampton, who was no stranger to designing the interiors of presidential residences, also brought his talents to the White House to decorate for various presidents, including Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. As part of this renovation project, Buatta was mainly responsible for the decoration of Lee House, while Hampton took on Blair House.
Arguably the most eye-catching element of Lee House is the hand-painted 18th century Chinese wallpaper (pictured above) that takes center stage on the walls of the Dillon Drawing Room—which was originally called the Lee Drawing Room, after United States Navy officer and a former resident of this house, Samuel Phillips Lee (it was later renamed for C. Douglas Dillon, former United States Secretary of the Treasury). Dillon’s wife, Phyllis, purchased the charming wallpaper in 1964, under the design expertise of decorator Eleanor McMillen Brown. During the 1985 renovation, this wallpaper was removed and restored.
As for Blair House, we have President Harry S. Truman to thank for one of its most impressive assets—a mantel designed by renowned architect Charles McKim (of architectural firm McKim, Mead & White), which was moved, per Truman’s request, to Blair House from the White House, where it was originally part of former First Lady Edith Roosevelt’s bedroom.
If we’ve piqued your interest and you’d like to learn more about Blair House, it’s not the easiest of tasks to score an invite to this historic house—but there are two books (both of which happen to have the same title, Blair House: The President’s Guest House) that further explore this remarkable home: one that focuses on its history, written by historian William Seale, and another, which focuses on the home’s 1985 renovation, written by the decorators responsible for the glorious redesigns, Mario Buatta and Mark Hampton.
In the meantime, the President’s Guest House is likely being prepped for President-elect Joe Biden’s upcoming stay next week.
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