Located some 60 miles north of Washington, D.C., in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park, Camp David has served as a retreat for U.S. presidents since the early 1940s. Formally called Naval Support Facility Thurmont, the compound originally was referred to as Shangri-La by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first chief executive to visit. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower renamed the retreat Camp David, after his grandson.

Before it became a presidential getaway, the site was a camp for federal employees and their families, starting in the late 1930s. In 1942, during World War II, worries that it was no longer safe for Roosevelt to cruise on the presidential yacht, USS Potomac, led to the secluded camp being turned into a refuge for the commander in chief. The site’s mountain setting also was deemed good for Roosevelt’s health, as it provided some respite from the oppressive summer heat in the nation’s capital.

When Eisenhower took office in 1953, he planned to shutter Camp David, believing it an unnecessary “luxury.” However, after visiting the site at the urging of a member of his administration, the president liked it so much he kept it open. He did decide to change the name, though, explaining in a letter to a friend: “’Shangri-La was just a little fancy for a Kansas farm boy.”

David Eisenhower, grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, poses with Camp David sign, October 1960.
National Archives
David Eisenhower, grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, poses with Camp David sign, October 1960.

Over the decades, American presidents have used Camp David to relax with their families and friends, convene with advisors and host foreign heads of state. The first foreign leader to visit was British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in 1943 at Roosevelt’s invitation. In 1978 President Jimmy Carter held talks there with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. The resulting Camp David Accords led to a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel the following year.

Today the Camp David compound, which is closed to the public, includes a main house, cabins and such amenities as a swimming pool, putting green, riding trails and skeet-shooting range. Eisenhower was the first Oval Office occupant to commute there by helicopter; the ride takes about half an hour from the White House.