By Ambassador Nancy Brinker, Chief of Protocol of the United States.
Photography Carol M. Highsmith
Blair House endures as a warm and welcoming “home away from home” for visiting heads of state and other dignitaries. Its elegant rooms are settings for important social and ceremonial aspects of American diplomacy, and it continues the legacy of hospitality and service to the nation left by one of our most influential founding families.
While serving as chief of protocol, I have had the opportunity to work with those who care deeply about the preservation our official presidential guest residence. Undersecretary Pat Kennedy has seen to it that Blair House remains a high priority at the Department of State. Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt has led a 25-year effort to make it an inviting and comfortable home, and Lloyd Hand’s success in establishing and funding a permanent endowment to ensure it remains an American showplace has been unprecedented. Harry Mahar at the Department of State works to maintain the infrastructure and mechanical systems, and director Randy Bumgardner and his heroic team provide unparalleled hospitality and care to all those who stay here.
The Federal style townhouse was built in 1824 for Joseph Lovell, the first surgeon general of the United States, and acquired in 1837 by Francis Preston Blair, who came to Washington to transform the Globe newspaper into a pro-Andrew Jackson publication. (Blair was part of Jackson’s circle of close friends and informal advisors known in the rival press as the “Kitchen Cabinet.”) It would remain in the Blair family’s hands for more than 100 years. In 1859, Blair built a house next door for his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and her husband, Capt. Samuel P. Lee, a grandson of Revolutionary War patriot Richard Henry Lee and third cousin of Gen. Robert E. Lee. After the two dwellings were combined, the complex was occasionally called the Blair-Lee House, although Blair House is its official name today.
Blair House was declared a national historic landmark in 1939, three years before it was purchased by the Federal Government as an official guest house for monarchs, presidents and prime ministers while they are in Washington. Harry S. Truman and his family occupied Blair House from 1948 to 1952 when the White House underwent major renovations. On Nov. 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Truman there. The plot failed although a White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt, died in the attack.
In 1985, Congress appropriated $8.6 million for much needed structural repairs but stipulated no government funds be used for redecoration. The Blair House Restoration Fund was then formed to solicit support from the private sector for refurbishing and long-term conservation. Under the dedicated leadership of former Reagan administration Chief of Protocol Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, and the generosity of its many supporters, the fund continues its unique public/private partnership with the Department of State that ensures Blair House’s ongoing preservation for future generations.
Blair House is now a compound of four connected dwellings, including tow conjoined and renovated row houses at 700 and 704 Jackson Place N.W., which were purchased in 1969-1970, and the adjacent Trowbridge House on Lafayette Park, which is being converted to serve as an official residence for former U.S. presidents visiting the capital. Today the complex totals 119 rooms on five levels covering 70,000+ square feet, which is about 5,000 square feet larger than the White House.