President's Park (White House) Washington, D.C. Visited: July 14, 2006 (but didn't go in) NPS Site Visited: 312 of 353 Second Visit: November 11, 2006 (still didn't get in) NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? The home of every United States president since John Adams. The White House is the enduring symbol of our government's executive branch. Two grassy public parks, the Ellipse to the south and Lafayette Square to the north, bookend the president's home and are collectively known as President's Park.
This review covers an outside-only visit to the White House. We are trying to procure tour tickets. Once we get in we will re-score and re-review the whole shebang.
BEAUTY (6/10) The White House is eminently recognizable among American houses. Architect Benjamin Latrobe meshed Palladian and neo-classical styles with a dab of Georgian to create the presidents' stately, modest mansion. Yes, its true. From the outside it is clearly white, although eggshell might be a more accurate description.
But is it beautiful? We don't think so. It's an English manor house. The Ellipse grounds are pleasant but under constant attack by security roadblocks, tour group buses and ceremonial constructions like temporary grandstands and Christmas trees. This area south of the White House always seems to be in flux.
Lafayette Park and its southern boundary, Pennsylvania Avenue, are a different story. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, the section of Pennsylvania Avenue behind the White House was transformed from a busy street to a pedestrian-only walkway. Even large crowds cannot make this wide avenue feel full. The result is a calmer environment.
Lafayette Park's four corners are guarded by foreign war heroes who aided our independence from Great Britain: two Frenchmen, one Prussian and one Pole. Any commander-in-chief who looks out his northern windows is reinforced with the notion that the United States did not become a country on its own. Our favorite of the statues? Dashing Polish architect and General Thaddeus Kosciuszko, of course.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10) The U.S. president has lived and done business on these grounds since 1800. So yes, the White House has seen its share of important historic events.
CROWDS (9/10) All day every day, excited hordes flock to the White House exterior. They scream and giggle like they are at a star-studded Hollywood movie premiere. They press their faces against the gates hoping to catch a view of somebody. A steady chorus of “Is that him? Who are those limos for? Is he going to come out? Let's just wait five more minutes and see if something happens? and Oh my gosh I just saw some movement” drowns out any thought.
A steady rotation of camera lenses poke through the barriers, hoping for the best non-obscured shot. Group photos never cease. We defy you to not be asked, “Could you please take a picture for me?” The atmosphere is fun, celebrity obsessed and even apolitical. The crowds just want to see someone famous; it matters little if they are a republican or a democrat.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) It is the most famous address in the United States and, according to Pierre L'Enfant's city plan, all D.C. avenues lead here. Nevertheless, do not take these roads. Parking is troublesome. Take the D.C. Metro. Five stations are within yards of the White House grounds. D.C.'s trademark tourist transporter Tourmobile takes you here as does what must be 50 different city buses.
Once you get to the White House your proximity is limited. A few hundred yards separates you from the president's abode and wrought iron gates block every view. The closest you are going to get is the newly pedestrian-only Pennsylvania Avenue. Maybe, just maybe someone will open a curtain and you can get a peek in.
Almost twenty years ago Michael and his father took a spontaneous summer mid-week trip to D.C. They arrived before noon, got in the ticket line at the White House visitor kiosk and were inside looking for Millie the springer spaniel in under two hours. That kind of access is a thing of the past. Nowadays you must get a ticket via your congressman or one of your senators. Try all three. Once they say yes your name is processed through a homeland security check. If you are not deemed a security threat you get a ticket. The whole rigmarole could take up to three months.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) We were turned off by the Visitor Center store's ornate selection that shied away from all books not of the coffee table variety. The $125 Red Room scarves (made in France, gasp), presidential jewelry, art prints and Christmas tree ornaments were nice but a little superficial considering this Site honors the leader of the free world. If your image of the American presidency just screams glamour then the Site's online store might answer all your stocking stuffer needs.
COSTS (4/5) Milling about the White House exterior costs nothing. Just don't look suspicious.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5) The Visitor Center, museum exhibits and on-duty Rangers live one block away from the White House at 1450 Pennsylvania Avenue. There is a ground level entrance that leads through metal detectors and X-ray machines. A few Rangers are available to answer questions but their numbers are exceeded by outsourced security guards.
TOURS/CLASSES (3/10) The exhibits at 1450 Pennsylvania were extensive but thoroughly uninviting. The long and narrow room stretches at least 100 yards from east to west. At one point we separated and had to use our cell phones to reconnect. All the exhibits are stuffed in a back wall recess that hugs the whole 100 yards. The lighting is bad, the print is small, the history is dry and it is a wonder we did not fall asleep while on our feet. So we sat down on stiff metal chairs and tried to watch the boring look-at-the-beautiful-plates-in-slow-motion style introductory video. The video's parade of White House minutia, wallpaper and rugs just drove home the point that we weren't going in.
The Site offers three interpretive Ranger programs Monday through Saturday at 9:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m and 1:30 p.m. We missed these talks but they are probably the way to go.
FUN (4/10) We had fun watching excited tourists but our exterior-only White House visit was not engaging or interactive enough. We wanted to go in! It is our house too.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) You can't come to D.C. without viewing the White House. If you know your traveling dates more than three months in advance then see if your congressman or senators can get you on a tour. Should you make a stop at the White House Visitor Center? Only if you want the National Parks Passport stamp.
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