Commanders in chief seeking refuge from Washington politics and weather have retreated to destinations across the U.S. map, from the Jersey Shore to Southern California.
Hoover’s Fish Tale
Shortly before his 1929 inauguration, Herbert Hoover bought 164 acres in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains to use as a retreat. A dedicated angler, the president picked the property, which he named Rapidan Camp, because it was a good spot for trout fishing and only about 100 miles from Washington. U.S. Marines, as part of their training regimen, built a lodge, cabins and several miles of hiking trails for the nation’s new chief executive, who footed the bill for the construction materials. Hoover met with foreign leaders and members of his administration at his rustic resort, as well as such prominent people as Charles Lindbergh and Thomas Edison. After he failed to win re-election in 1932, Hoover donated Rapidan Camp to the government with the hope it would be used by future commanders in chief. Instead, Hoover’s successor, Franklin Roosevelt, opted to build a presidential getaway in Maryland. (FDR dubbed the place Shangri-La but since the 1950s it’s been called Camp David.) In the mid-1930s, Rapidan became part of newly established Shenandoah National Park. Today, several of its original buildings are open for tours.
Eisenhower Down on the Farm
In 1950, Dwight Eisenhower, then the president of Columbia University after leading Allied forces in Western Europe to victory in World War II, bought a 189-acre farm next to the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. More than 30 years earlier, in the midst of World War I, Eisenhower commanded the Army’s newly established Tank Corps at Gettysburg’s Camp Colt. After becoming the 34th U.S. president in 1953, he used the farm (the only home he ever owned) as a weekend retreat, where he liked to shoot skeet and show guests his herd of Angus cattle. In 1955, when he had a heart attack, Eisenhower recovered at his farm. Three years later, during the Cold War, he entertained Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev at his Gettysburg property. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie, retired to the farm in 1961 and resided there until their deaths, in 1969 and 1979, respectively. The couple donated the site to the National Park Service.
Lincoln Slept Here
During Washington’s sweltering summers, Abraham Lincoln and his family cooled off just a few miles from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, at a residence on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, a 225-acre site housing retired and disabled military vets. The property’s D.C. location enabled Lincoln to commute to work daily. (One night in 1864, when he was riding home alone by horseback a sniper tried to gun him down.) Over the course of his time in office, he spent 13 months at the site, reportedly drafting the Emancipation Proclamation there, meeting wounded Civil War soldiers and also staying there the night before his assassination.
Lincoln’s predecessor, James Buchanan, was the first to use the property as a retreat, starting in 1857. The bachelor president allegedly went there in part to escape his female admirers. Rutherford Hayes summered at the site during his term, from 1877 to 1881. Chester Arthur was the final commander in chief to live there, staying in the winter of 1882 while the White House was undergoing renovations.
Truman’s Sunshine State Sanctuary
In 1946, on his doctor’s orders that a worn-out President Harry Truman take a vacation somewhere warm, he went to Key West, Florida, and stayed in a residence previously used as naval officers’ quarters. Truman liked it so much he visited a total of 11 times before the end of his presidency in 1952, and the place became known as the Little White House. In addition to fishing and swimming, he held meetings at the Little White House about such weighty issues as the reconstruction of post-World War II Europe and the start of the Cold War. Later presidents visited the residence, including John Kennedy, who convened there in 1961 with the British prime minister shortly before the Bay of Pigs. The Little White House is now a museum.
Grant Went Down the Shore
During his two terms in office, from 1869-1877, Ulysses Grant, the country’s 18th chief executive spent summers at a cottage, as the large, oceanfront home then was called, in Long Branch, New Jersey. At least six of Grant’s successors spent time in Long Branch: James Garfield, Rutherford Hayes, Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley and Woodrow Wilson. After being shot in Washington, D.C., in July 1881, President Garfield eventually was taken to the Elberon section of Long Branch to recuperate, but instead he died there that September. Grant’s shore house was torn down in 1963.
Jefferson’s Other Virginia Home
When Jefferson needed a break from the public spotlight, as well as his main estate, Monticello, he headed to Poplar Forest, the Virginia home he started building in 1806, during his second term as president. A self-taught architect, Jefferson designed the octagon-shaped structure himself. It was situated on a 4,800-acre plantation he and his wife, Martha, inherited from her family in 1773, a year after they wed. More than 90 slaves labored on the plantation. Two years after Jefferson’s death in 1826, his grandson sold Poplar Forest. In the 1980s, a non-profit group purchased the main house and began restoring it; the property is now open to the public.
Taft’s House Divided
In 1909, William Taft and his family decamped D.C. for a 14-room guest house called Stetson Cottage on the grounds of a shorefront estate in Beverly, Massachusetts. The area was a popular summer destination for politicians and industrialists. Taft enjoyed golfing and taking auto rides along the coast, and returned with his family to Stetson Cottage the next summer. However, the estate’s owner, a wealthy widow, was so unnerved by the curious sightseers, reporters and Secret Service agents who trailed Taft to her property that she told him he wasn’t welcome back a third time. To ensure this didn’t happen, she had Stetson Cottage cut in half and floated across the harbor by barges to the town of Marblehead, where it was reassembled. Taft spent the final two summers of his presidency at another Beverly mansion, known as Parramatta.
Nixon’s Coastal Hideaways
The year Richard Nixon became president he bought a ranch-style home in Key Biscayne, Florida, which he retreated to more than 50 times while in office, including during the Watergate scandal. The site, dubbed the Winter White House, included a private beach and a floating helipad, paid for by the government. Two years after resigning the presidency in 1974, Nixon sold the home; it was razed in 2004 to make way for a swankier residence. The same year he purchased his Florida abode, Nixon acquired an oceanfront estate in his native California, in the town of San Clemente. He called the property La Casa Pacifica (it also became known as the Western White House) and met with more than a dozen heads of state there during his time in office. After leaving Washington, Nixon penned his memoirs at La Casa Pacifica before selling the property in 1980 and moving to New York City. In 2017, the estate was on the market for $63.5 million.
Johnson’s Texas White House
1951, Lyndon Johnson, then a first-term U.S. senator from Texas, acquired a rundown, 250-acre ranch from a relative in his home state’s Hill Country. In the years that followed, as Johnson became Senate Majority leader, vice president and then president, after John Kennedy’s 1963 assassination, the ranch grew to 2,700 acres and raised prizewinning cattle. During the turbulent years of his presidency, amidst the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, Johnson visited the ranch frequently (more than 70 rotary phones were installed on the property) and met with foreign dignitaries and members of his administration there. He enjoyed driving guests around the site in a white Lincoln convertible. After leaving office in 1969, he retired to the ranch and died there in 1973. Part of the property is now a national park and continues to operate as a working ranch.