During this Presidential election cycle, it might be interesting to take a tour of the residence all these folks covet. It’s not hard to do, and best of all, it’s absolutely free. Here’s how to set up a tour of the White House and what you’ll see inside and outside.
When I applied to visit the White House, I didn’t expect to receive a prompt response from my Congressman Christopher Van Hollen’s office, but I was delighted when I received an email that assigned me to a date and time for my visit. When you first apply for a White House Tour, you can’t specify day or time, but you can put in a window of time that you prefer. As I was working on The 2016 Unofficial Guide to Washington DC (now available on Amazon) at the time, I wanted to explain how to tour the White House and explain what to expect.
My first recommendation is to just reach out and write to your congressional representative. If you don’t exactly know who that is, go to www.house.gov/representative and insert your zip code. Then you’ll see your representative unless there are multiple options, and then you’ll need to insert your street address. It’s really that easy!
The next step is to find “Request a Tour” on the congressperson’s website. Fill out the request form for a tour of either the US Capitol, Bureau of Engraving and Printing (where the government prints our money), the Treasury Department, Pentagon, the Kennedy Center, Supreme Court and a few others.
Of course, you want to see the White House so go to that link. On the site, there are detailed instructions so you will know what is required; you’ll need to provide your full name, date of birth, gender, social security number and your current address. If you’re a foreign national, you’ll need to fill out the same information you would fill out when entering the United States.
The next step is receiving an email from your representative. It will designate the day, time and location of where you will go for your tour. The day of your tour, you need to bring along your driver’s license or passport (if you’re bringing a child, they won’t need a drivers license of course). You’ll need to arrive 15 minutes early at the Hamilton Gate which is on 15th Street. All visitors must pass through a security gate similar to the machines they have at the airport. Finally, you’re escorted to a big room with lovely photos of different presidents and their families. There’s a small gift shop where you can pick up a souvenir.
After entering through the Eastern Colonnade, the guide summons everyone to enter the White House public rooms, saying, “Welcome to the President’s Home! The first rooms you’ll see are the Library and the Vermeil Room. The library had been a laundry room in the days before President Franklin Roosevelt made it into a library. It now has 2700 books related to American life. It’s used when a president or first lady engages in an interview with a member of the media. The Vermeil room was once used for billiards but now contains paintings of several first ladies, include Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson. It’s called vermeil for the extensive collection of gilded silver. The furnishings are soft pastel colors and like almost every other room, there is a fireplace.
Our tour guide is a member of the Secret Service, but under the “Uniformed Division.” We were led by a very funny and smart Agent Moore. He shared stories about each room, the history of the artwork, and ushered us along. He and the other members of the Secret Service were very gracious and patient as people jumped around taking photos and selfies. Agent Moore also pointed out the movie room, and the Presidential China Hutch, displaying the various china patterns and silver table ware from previous President’s administrations.
You’ll walk up stairs the expansive East Room. It’s kept empty, ready to fill a number of functions, such as greeting dignitaries or used as a site for public events, like the signing of the Affordable Care Act or performances by famous musicians like Paul McCartney. In the past, it’s been used as a place to hang laundry or the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral. When you look out the windows, you’ll see what the President sees: gardens, fountains, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the National Mall. The land behind The White House is called “President’s Park.”
The group is ushered into another room called the Green Room, obviously for it’s color scheme. It’s a lavish sitting room used to host teas and parlor events. Today the dark mahogany furniture contrasts strikingly against the bright green oriental rug, green velvet couches and stunning crystal chanderlier. The room is filled with portraits of American leaders and paintings by American artists.
The next on the tour is the Blue Room, a very regal space shaped like an elliptical or circle, and furnished in gold and blue by the original American hostess, Dolley Madison, who was married to the fourth US President, James Madison. It served as a drawing room, and is currently used by the President and First Lady to receive important guests. It was also used in the wedding of President Grover Cleveland in 1886, and during the Christmas holidays, is the site for the principal Christmas tree. Eight pieces of furniture made for the room in 1814 were lost and then rediscovered at an antique store in Georgetown.
The Red Room is dark scarlet and is set aside to use for private meetings by Presidents and First Ladies. Over the years it was called “the music room” for the pianoforte that had been placed in the room. Theodore Roosevelt used it as a smoking room, and there are a number of impressive paintings including a portrait of Alexander Hamilton, Dolley Madison, Martin Van Buren and his wife Angelica.
The largest room on the tour is the State Dining Room, with an expanse of white walls adorned only with one memorable portrait of Abraham Lincoln. Once owned by the Lincoln family, it was donated with the understanding that it would be the only one in the room. There is also a very long dining table used for State Dinners. The rug is a lovely repeating pattern of flowers and leaves.
Before leaving, visitors are invited to shoot a few selfies before heading out to the North Portico and Grand Foyer. The pianoforte was moved into this white room with pillars, high ceilings, marble floor and crystal chandeliers. You can see the bannister to the stairwell and portraits of Presidents George W. Busch and Bill Clinton.
This is your last glimpse before heading out the door, and thinking, wow, this isn’t that big or that fancy. I’m kind of underwhelmed after seeing palaces in Europe and luxurious hotels in North America. But maybe that’s what makes the White House so American. It’s an impressive, imposing structure from afar, but up close, it’s very accessible and friendly.