Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ready for its sixth vice president

Naval Observatory's "a home, not an institution," says Joan Mondale.

At the vice president's residence in Washington, the dining room table is on loan from the State Department. The residence, built in 1893 in the Queen Anne style, was designated in 1974; Joe and Jill Biden settle in Jan. 20.
At the vice president's residence in Washington, the dining room table is on loan from the State Department. The residence, built in 1893 in the Queen Anne style, was designated in 1974; Joe and Jill Biden settle in Jan. 20.Read moreDAVID BOHRER / White House

For the holidays, the dining table at the vice president's official residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory often is set with white vice presidential china and tulip-shaped Lenox crystal stemware. And sometimes, a sippy cup or two.

Unlike the stately mansion of the first family a few miles away, the Queen Anne house of the second family stays out of the spotlight. It has been home to five families so far. Many say it's an ideal place to raise children and entertain grandchildren.

On Jan. 20, the 33-room white-brick house with sage-green shutters off Massachusetts Avenue NW will welcome its sixth family, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., 66, and his wife, Jill, 57, a college professor. The Bidens have three children and five grandchildren.

Because Biden has an interest in architecture and had a hand in designing his house in the suburbs of Wilmington, he has chatted up past residents of his new Washington address for some details.

"I told him, 'You are going to love living in your new house,' " says Joan Mondale, wife of former Vice President Walter Mondale. " 'It's a home, not an institution.' "

The Mondales and their three teenagers lived there from 1977 to 1981, adding contemporary American art and studio pottery to the formal furniture in the house.

"It was a lively household," Mondale says. "Our kids had friends who came and stayed overnight, and there were a lot of very important meetings here, so you felt like you were in the center of things."

Living in a temporary residence can be complicated when holidays roll around. The Gores dished up Halloween, giving out candy to neighborhood kids and hosting a costume party for the media. But they went home to Tennessee for Thanksgiving. The Mondales gathered around the empire table that once graced the Manhattan apartment of John D. Rockefeller.

The house was built in 1893 for superintendents of the Naval Observatory; in 1928 it became the residence of the chief of naval operations. It's still owned and operated by the Navy, but in 1974 Congress designated it the vice president's official residence.

The observatory property occupies 72 acres, 13 of which make up the vice presidential compound, according to Geoff Chester, public affairs officer for the observatory. The Navy supplies staffing.

The week before Thanksgiving, workers were setting up a tent for the series of holiday parties the Cheneys would be hosting at 1 Observatory Circle. Lynne Cheney gave a tour of the first floor, decorated in furnishings of cream and celadon.

There is a sense of history inside, and a clutch of stunning artworks: A Gilbert Stuart portrait of John Adams, the country's first vice president, hangs in the library. A planter of grass picks up the vivid green in Helen Frankenthaler's painting

Lush Spring

over the living room sofa.

"If we had a theme, it was 'Keep it calm,' " says Cheney, who has six grandchildren ages 1 to 14. "We are an active family."

The expansive entrance foyer with thick green-and-beige Oriental carpet is a favorite spot. "Our grandchildren don't stay seated for long after dinner, so they can go there and roll around and play and dance."

The house is building its own furniture collection. Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, who was vice president from 1993 to 2001, recalls starting with "a basically gorgeous, historic but empty" house. The fourth family to live there came with four children - one in college and three still at home - and three dogs. Her favorite part of the process was going to museums "and having them pull out special pieces we could borrow."

The Gores used the property for jogging and for ice skating on the lawn after ice storms. There were jazz parties and Christmas decorating with holiday impresario Christopher Radko.

In summer 1997, daughter Karenna had her wedding reception in an air-conditioned tent on the property, with a guest appearance by Aretha Franklin.

Tipper Gore spoke to Jill Biden after the election. "She called me about this impending move, and she was very excited and honored about it," Gore says. "Her main concern, of course, is that it lend itself to family living. The great thing is that it can be exactly the way you want it."

Before the 1974 legislation, vice presidents and their families lived in their own homes, but the cost of security for those properties was escalating. Although Gerald and Betty Ford were slated to be the first occupants of 1 Observatory Circle, they got upgraded to the White House before they could move in.

Nelson and Happy Rockefeller decided they would be more comfortable in their Foxhall Road mansion in Washington, though they brought in art and antiques and used the official residence for entertaining. The Mondales were the first to move in, and they established a tradition of borrowing from museums, artists and the State Department to fill out the rooms.

George and Barbara Bush executed renovations and redecoration using money raised from private individuals. During the Dan and Marilyn Quayle years, the Vice President's Residence Foundation was established to raise money from private donors for refurbishment and acquisitions, and a swimming pool was added.

The Gores introduced indigenous trees and shrubs and created a computerized inventory of furnishings.

The Cheneys worked with interior designer Frank Babb Randolph. The rooms combine antiques, the Cheneys' Western art, classic upholstery, and billowing striped silk taffeta curtains.

Last year, Cheney showed Joan Mondale and her grandchildren around.

"She was very gracious, and it looks beautiful," Mondale recalls. "The Bidens will have a clean slate in a sense. The decor was quite neutral, and they can do their own thing."