Not so long ago, a White House tour was part of any visit to Washington, D.C. Thousands of schoolkids and tourists could wander through the nation’s headquarters to see where the president greets foreign dignitaries and the first lady plants her roses. But since 9/11, getting into the White House has become a task for the truly dedicated. Groups of at least ten people must make reservations through a member of Congress months in advance.
As an alternative, the Truman Library welcomes the return of The White House in Miniature exhibit. Created by John and Jan Zweifel in 1962, the scale model of the president’s digs is 60 feet long and 20 feet wide and weighs 10 tons. It’s been under constant reconstruction, with updates to the Oval Office and nods to the current resident’s decorating style. Peeking into the windows on the southern (photogenic) side or viewing the cutaway northern side, visitors can see perfectly re-created furniture, carpet, chandeliers (lit by rice-grain-sized bulbs) and rooms frozen in time from earlier administrations.
In the years since its inception, the miniature White House has traveled across the country, residing in almost every presidential library. The exhibit originally opened at the Truman Library in 1996. Back then, says curator Clay Bauske, “We weren’t prepared for the crowds we got. There were people waiting hours to get in to see it.” This time, the exhibit lasts through July 2006 and changes with the seasons — Christmas decorations will match the real White House’s holiday decor. For history’s sake, the library surrounds the exhibit with photos and souvenirs from 1952, when the White House was gutted and rebuilt from the inside.
When we asked why the White House is so compelling, even for people who don’t revere the current administration, Bauske explained that the appeal is in its simplicity. “It’s the seat of power and a living museum,” he says. “But it’s also a home. It’s not the White Palace or White Mansion. It’s very purposely called a house.”