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Located on the northeast grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., the house was built in 1893 for its superintendent. The Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) liked the house so much that in 1923 he took over the house for himself. It remained the residence of the CNO until 1974, when Congress authorized its transformation to an official residence for the Vice President. The congressional authorization covered the cost of refurbishment and furnishing the house.
Before that time, the Vice President lived in his own home, but the cost of providing security for these private residences had become prohibitive.
Although Number One Observatory Circle was made available to the Vice President in 1974, three years passed before a Vice President lived full-time in the house. Vice President Gerald Ford became President before he could use the house. His Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, primarily used the home for entertaining as he already had a well-secured residence in Washington, D.C., though the Rockefellers donated millions of dollars of furnishings to the house. Vice President Walter Mondale was the first Vice President to move into the house. Every Vice President since has lived there.
The house is built in the Queen Anne style popular in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Hallmarks of the Queen Anne style are an asymmetrical floor plan, a series of rooms opening to each other rather than a common central hall, round turret rooms, inglenooks near fireplaces, and broad verandas wrapping the ground floor, all of which are found at Number One Observatory Circle.
When the house was constructed, its exterior was faced in terracotta brick. The wood trim was painted in a warm putty-gray, and the wooden porch in a combination of the putty-gray and white. Window frames and mullions were painted the same gray, and shutters were painted olive green. The interior was furnished mostly with the personal furnishings of the Naval Observatory Superintendent, and later those of the Chief of Naval Operations. Period photographs of the interior show middle-class nineteenth-century furnishings in a variety of styles, including Eastlake. Walls were covered in patterned wall-papers.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, Victorian-style architecture had begun to fall out of fashion. Many houses that were originally built in brick, or in wood with complex painting, were simplified and "colonialized" by being painted white. This frequently happened inside as well as outside, and substantial wood millwork of mahogany, quarter-sawn oak, American chestnut and walnut were often painted over in white to "lighten" rooms and make them feel more contemporary. In 1961 the exterior of the house was painted white, the color it still retains.
The 1974 renovation replaced and updated building systems and increased the size of several rooms by removing internal walls. As a part of this renovation, interior trim was painted white and the walls a palette of mostly neutral colors. Little consideration was given to historic preservation with interior or exterior spaces, and no attempt was made at restoration of any interior space to its appearance at the period of construction or early use. The 1961 era white paint on the exterior was retained. Second floor shutters, which appear in an 1895 photograph, were reinstalled.
Most of the furnishings placed in the house following the 1974 renovation were twentieth century copies of either colonial or Federal style pieces. A notable exception was a bed placed in the house by Nelson Rockefeller. The bed was designed by artist Max Ernst. Called the "cage" bed, the headboard had the form of a Greek pediment, and the baseboard a lower version of a pediment. Sculptural foliage similar to olive or laurel leaves wrapped around the posts. The seal of the Vice President of the United States was incorporated into the headboard. The Rockefellers twice offered the bed permanently to the house but it was turned down both by Vice President George H. W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. On visiting Barbara Bush at the house, Mrs. Rockefeller offered her the bed, and Mrs. Bush responded "you are always welcome in this house, but there's no need to bring your own bed." The Rockefellers did leave a lithograph called "The Great Ignoramus," several antique Korean and Japanese chests, and nearly a dozen other pieces.
When the Mondales occupied the house, Joan Mondale introduced more saturated upholstery and wall colors and contemporary art. Like the Rockefellers, the Mondales brought some Asian antiques into the house. The Bush family, working with interior decorator Mark Hampton, used a palette of celadon, lime, and light blue. The Quayles removed the lime green and used off-white. The Gores oversaw a complete redecoration, the addition of a new dining-room table, new furniture for the library, and a substantial renovation of the grounds and porches to make them more suitable for outdoor entertaining. Immediately before the Cheneys moved in, some needed work on the air conditioning and heating was performed and the interiors were repainted. The Cheneys brought several pieces of contemporary art into the house.
The three-story brick house—completed in April 1893—is compact, 39 by 77 feet (12 m × 23 m), with 9,150 square feet (850 m2) of floor space. On the ground floor are a reception hall, living room, sitting room, sun porch, dining room and small pantry, and lavatories added later to the north side. The second floor contains two bedrooms, a study, and a den. The third floor attic was originally servants' quarters and storage space. The kitchen was placed in the basement, along with a laundry room and other storerooms.
On May 17, 2009, Newsweek's Eleanor Clift reported that Vice President Joe Biden revealed that there is an underground "9/11" bunker under the house. It was speculated that the bunker was built in December 2002 when neighbors complained of loud construction noises. Elizabeth Alexander, the Vice President’s spokesperson, explained the following day, “What the vice president described in his comments was not — as some press reports have suggested — an underground facility, but rather, an upstairs work space in the residence, which he understood was frequently used by Vice President Cheney and his aides."
When compared to the White House, One Observatory Circle is obscure and little known. It is rarely a backdrop for political demonstrations.
During the brief feud between then-Vice President Dan Quayle and fictional television news reporter Murphy Brown an episode of the sitcom included a scene of a truckload of potatoes dumped at what is meant to be the gate to the Vice President's Residence as a silent protest.
The off-post area immediately beyond the fence was the site of televised protests in support of Vice President Al Gore's presidential bid during the Florida recount in November 2000.
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