The Fascinating History Behind the Vice President’s Residence, Number One Observatory Circle

Mary Elizabeth Andriotis
·5-min read
Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Wikipedia
Photo credit: D. Myles Cullen/Wikipedia

From House Beautiful

This story was originally published on 12/11/2020; it has been updated to reflect new information.

Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images
Photo credit: SAUL LOEB - Getty Images

Everyone knows that the president of the United States lives in the White House, but did you know that the vice president lives in a different, less grandiose (but still impressive) white house? Since 1977, every person who has held the position of vice president has called the same place home: Number One Observatory Circle. The house in question is a Queen Anne-style Victorian home that was built in 1893 on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.—and its history is pretty fascinating.

Although Kamala Harris was initially expected to move into this abode shortly after being sworn in as the Vice President in January—as is tradition—the historic residence has been unoccupied since Inauguration Day, so that it could undergo some necessary renovations.

Fortunately, now that the renovation work is complete, the Vice President’s Residence is move-in ready—and Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, will finally move in next week, according to CNN. In the meantime, they have been living just across the street from the White House, in the President’s Guest House, also known as Blair House (more on that here).

So, what renovations were made to the property in the past two months? According to a tweet from Symone Sanders, Vice President Harris’s chief spokeswoman, "The repairs included maintenance on the HVAC system, replacing the liners in the chimneys and refurbishing of some of the hardwood floors.” Additionally, Sanders explained, “The move was initially delayed to allow for repairs to the home that are more easily conducted with the home unoccupied.”

Originally, this house was the residence of the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, given that the site of the house was once the grounds of the observatory (hence the address One Observatory Circle). In 1966, following the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Congress passed a law that established "an official residence for the vice president of the United States in the District of Columbia,” likely due to safety concerns.

In 1974, the home was officially authorized for its new purpose, with Congress handling the costs of its restoration and furnishing. Prior to this authorization, vice presidents would either purchase a Washington, D.C. home or stay at nearby hotels. But it wasn’t until 1977 that a vice president actually moved into the house: Gerald Ford's time as vice president was cut short following then-President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974. Under Ford, Nelson Rockefeller was appointed the next vice president, and he already had a nearby residence—but he did sometimes use the house at One Observatory Circle as an entertaining space.

Photo credit: U.S. Naval Observatory Library
Photo credit: U.S. Naval Observatory Library

In total, seven vice presidents have lived at 1 Observatory Circle: Walter Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden, and Mike Pence. Next month, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will soon join this list, becoming the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of Asian descent to take on this important job. Of course, no two vice presidents are the same, so the house interiors are redecorated accordingly every four or eight years, often by interior designers, to best match the new second family’s style.

Although the home did not originally have a pool, former Vice President Dan Quayle had one installed in 1991, along with a hot tub and a pool house, thanks to private donations. Because of these new additions to the house, President-elect Joe Biden once said his favorite vice president was Dan Quayle. When Biden lived here, he even told then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence and his wife, Karen, “You’re gonna love the pool.” And that they do; for the past four years, the Pences have hosted an annual pool party here for veterans.

As for the architectural design of Number One Observatory Circle, architect Leon E. Dessez was the visionary behind this historic house. The home's exterior was left unpainted until 1960, when its terra cotta bricks became the white color we see today. Back in 2014, we even caught a glimpse of the home's interiors thanks to HGTV.com, when they shared an inside look at how the Bidens decorated the Victorian-era home for the holiday season, complete with wreaths and garlands aplenty, inside and out.

Photo credit: Ken Cedeno/HGTV
Photo credit: Ken Cedeno/HGTV

Given the more than four decades this house has spent as the official residence of the vice president, it goes without saying that there are plenty of stories worth telling about the people who lived here. In the book The Haunting of the Presidents: A Paranormal History of the U.S. Presidency, it was revealed that during Vice President Mondale’s time spent living at Number One Observatory Circle, his then-teenage daughter Eleanor decided to call the Secret Service because she saw a silhouette by her window that she thought was a man. “Minutes later, two agents busted into the room, guns drawn,” Eleanor said, and warned her to never let this happen ever again. On another occasion, Vice President Cheney’s granddaughter accidentally clicked a panic button while trying to flush a toilet.

Hopefully, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will have a seamless transition into Number One Observatory Circle, free of ghosts and accidental panic button clicks! And maybe she’ll even get some decorating advice from the Bidens.

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