Second Lady Karen Pence personalizes One Observatory Circle while paying homage to the house’s past inhabitants.
It’s a cold, rainy morning in early November, perhaps the first seasonably appropriate day of an unseasonably balmy fall in Washington, but Karen Pence is undeterred by the drop in temperature. She and her family’s Australian shepherd, Harley, have already taken their daily swim in the heated pool on the grounds of One Observatory Circle. Her husband, Vice President Mike Pence, frequently uses it for exercise as well. “It’s great,” she enthuses. “That’s the thing that Joe Biden said to us as he got into the limo and left the Capitol on inauguration day — he said, ‘you’re gonna love the pool.’”
Her predecessor, Jill Biden, also had parting words for Mrs. Pence during the presidential transition in January, telling her to “just enjoy the house” and expressing a wish that the Pences create warm memories there.
Ten months after moving in, Mrs. Pence, herself no stranger to government life (she was most recently first lady of Indiana and, prior to that, a congressional spouse), says she and the Vice President have indeed created their own unique memories and hosted numerous “very special” visitors. Guests have included President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump, the King of Jordan and the prime ministers of Israel and Ireland, the latter on St. Patrick’s Day, a visit she says was especially significant for the Vice President, who is of Irish descent.
But Mrs. Pence, whose oldest child Michael serves in the Marine Corps, seems most nostalgic about events where she and her husband have welcomed members of the military and their families to the property on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. Over the summer, the Pences threw a pool party for children of soldiers deployed abroad. They’ve honored military women at the house, and hosted wounded warriors ahead of their annual Memorial Day bike ride.
The former art teacher is also passionate about art therapy, which she has declared as her initiative as second lady. In September, Pence hosted leaders in the field who are working with soldiers suffering from PTSD.
She is a watercolorist herself and often paints at the living room table in the private quarters on the second floor. Two of her works hang in the public spaces below. Her rendering of the U.S. Capitol dome is underneath the staircase and a print of a larger painting she did of One Observatory Circle is framed in the sunroom. The Pences have gifted prints of that piece to departing residence workers.
When it came to choosing other artworks to hang on the walls, the Pences borrowed landscapes by American artists from the Smithsonian’s archives, including Charles P. Gruppe’s “Meadow Brook” and Addison Thomas Miller’s “Waterfall,” which they placed in the foyer. “Woman Walking Down Path” by Edward Mitchell Bannister is in the living room and “Birch-Clad Hills” by Ben Foster in the library.
A cozy spot with one of seven wood-burning fireplaces in the house, the library is also a room where the Pences replicated their predecessors’ decor. “We loved the way the Bidens had it set up, so we pretty much made it very, very similar,” she says. “They had a leather couch in there. They had four chairs. We set it up the same way.”
As for decorating and furnishing the rest of the house, a task funded by the non-profit Vice President’s Residence Foundation, Pence says she used the blue tones in the fabric on the existing dining chairs as inspiration for choosing new upholstery and rugs. The chairs date back to the residency of a fellow Hoosier, Vice President Dan Quayle. “I actually called Marilyn [Quayle] and said I’m taking your chairs and I’m decorating the whole downstairs based on that,” Pence says with a laugh.
On the piano in the living room are photos of the Pences with previous vice presidents and their spouses, including their friends the Quayles. The oldest photo dates back to the 1980s: a young Mrs. Pence on her first visit to Observatory Circle posing with then-second lady Barbara Bush, who was hosting a luncheon for spouses of congressional hopefuls. Pence says she still has a paper napkin from that lunch, bearing the Vice Presidential Seal, in a scrapbook.
This story appears in the Holiday 2017 issue of Washington Life magazine.