It could safely be said that the dwelling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., is among the most storied and illustrious in history. The shadow of the White House looms large not just in the national consciousness, but throughout the world, an indelible symbol of American government in general, and the presidency in particular. While the complex is currently home and headquarters to President Barack Obama and his administration, within those same walls have dwelled, slept and worked every president since the second, John Adams, including such erstwhile residents as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, FDR and JFK. The scope of American history to which the edifice has played host humbles the imagination.
It would not be much of a stretch to say that, at least in America, everyone knows the White House, knows at least something about it, might recognize it in a photograph or be conversant with some of its famous spaces, such as the Oval Office, the Lincoln Bedroom, the Rose Garden, even the oft-televised press briefing room. However, visiting the astounding miniature White House currently on exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, one realizes that the storied edifice is much more than even legend observes. Thanks to the craftsmanship of John Zweifel — brilliantly realized with the help of family and friends and thousands of volunteers over the course of decades and more than half a million hours’ labor — the White House is presented in a perspective that simply would not otherwise be possible.
At a scale of 1inch to 1 foot, the sweep and scope of the 60-by-20-foot masterpiece, taken as a whole, seems to preclude the very mention of the word “miniature.” Rendered in exacting and minute detail, the model presents the presidential seat in a perspective that, despite the diminution, seems singularly larger than life, and leads to the obvious conclusion that, truly, this is an edifice befitting the gravitas of American leadership. There can be little doubt that few among its countless visitors — which have included heads of state and foreign dignitaries, distinguished citizens of the nation and the world, and some 1.2 million visitors per year — failed to be duly impressed by the environs.
While the grand façade is rendered as it famously appears on-site, replete with the presidential limousine and attendant Secret Service agents, the entire south wall of the model has been excised, laying open to the eye dozens of rooms, from the Obamas’ bedroom (since first exhibited in 1979 the model has been painstakingly updated to reflect the changes wrought by successive residents) to the grand ballroom, the Lincoln Bedroom, the movie theater and, yes, the Oval Office. Each chair and table is hand-carved and -finished, the rugs hand-woven; the tiny televisions actually work, the rooms illuminated by the glow of hundreds of lights, lamps and crystal chandeliers, exactly as they are in the District of Columbia some 3,000 miles away.
Lending a measure of historical perspective to the exhibit are a handful of additional rooms, including Ronald Reagan’s Oval Office and Treaty Room, FDR’s World War II War Room, a tableau of the 18th century construction site teeming with laborers, and the first Oval Office, as it appeared when originally constructed during the administration of President William Howard Taft.
Built in the last decade of the 18th century, the White House was subsequently destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. The structure was directly rebuilt, ready for the occupancy of the Monroe administration by 1817, and has undergone successive renovations since that time: President Theodore Roosevelt relieved overcrowding in the mansion by moving all the offices to a newly constructed West Wing in 1901; President Truman added a steel structure to the interior when the aging mansion was in danger of collapse; and an extensive renovation was undertaken by Jacqueline Kennedy during her husband’s administration, filling the manse with the art, antiques and fine appointments that distinguish it to this day. The structure is made up of six stories — the ground floor, state floor, second and third floors and two sub-levels, which encompass the Executive Residence, West Wing, Cabinet Room, Roosevelt Room, East Wing and the Old Executive Office Building.
While Zweifel’s vision for the model was conceived during the Kennedy Administration, it wasn’t until the days of President Ford, and the approach of the nation’s bicentennial, that he was granted the full access to the complex that was required for such precise reproduction. “At that point he got carte blanche access to the White House,” explains the Reagan Library’s Deputy Director Tony Chauveaux, “so he could measure and photograph as necessary. He’s had that access continuously, with every administration since then.” Zweifel’s masterpiece has been seen by some 42 million people over the last four decades, being shown some 350 times across the U.S and abroad, and will remain on exhibit in Simi Valley through April 2011.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum has welcomed millions of visitors since its opening in 1991, housing more than 63 million pages of gubernatorial, presidential and personal papers and more than 67,000 gifts and artifacts chronicling the lives of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The campus also serves as the final resting place of America’s 40th president, where the memorial site is inscribed with Reagan’s words: “I know in my heart that man is good, that what is right will always eventually triumph and there is purpose and worth to each and every life.”
The museum includes a full-scale replica of President Reagan’s Oval Office, a giant piece of the Berlin Wall (the fall of which is credited to the statesmanship of Reagan, among others), and the massive Air Force One Pavilion, home to the Boeing 707 aircraft that flew seven U.S. Presidents, including Reagan, more than 1 million miles in 28 years of service.
The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, 40 Presidential Drive, Simi Valley. Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., every day. 577-4000 or www.reaganlibrary.com.