Key West has new attraction

Myrtle Beach Sun News, SC
Posted on Sun, Sep. 16, 2007

Key West has new attraction

Goal to re-create Little White House as in Truman’s years

By Cammy Clark – McClatchy Newspapers

KEY WEST, Fla. –If the late Harry S. Truman could stroll into the
Little White House after the current restoration is complete, the
museum’s staff hopes the 33rd president would say: The old place
hasn’t changed one bit.

My desk. My piano. My poker table. My Colonial Plantation fabric.

For the meticulous project, the buck stops with museum executive
director Robert Wolz, who said: "Our goal is 100 percent authenticity
as it was in Truman’s time. It may take years. It may never
happen. But that’s our goal for Florida’s only presidential museum."

John F. Kennedy’s compound in West Palm Beach is closed to the
public. Richard Nixon’s Key Biscayne home was bulldozed in 2004 for
new development.

But the Little White House, once abandoned for 12 years, has become
one of Key West’s most popular attractions, with about 65,000 visitors
a year.

In 1990, the original $1 million restoration was completed, but there
were inaccuracies. For example, the foyer’s wallpaper has French
scenes. During Truman’s time, Miami architect Haygood Lassiteur picked
a scene that was clearly American: old-fashioned covered bridges and
colonial homes.

>From old black-and-white photos, the Scalamandre company of New York
has recreated the wallpaper. Technological advances have made it
economically possible to now handprint the small amount needed.

Every little detail

The ongoing second phase of the restoration takes the authenticity to
the next level. No detail is too small.

>From paint analysis under a microscope to reprinting antique oil
paintings loaned from the U.S. Naval Academy to searching for the
banana leaves fabric for the poker porch, Wolz is determined to make
the seven-bedroom, 9,000-square foot home look exactly as it did in

That’s the year the Navy, in just three months and with $95,000,
renovated the place Bess Truman called a "fishing camp" into a
tropical retreat worthy of a sitting president.

The restoration is getting a boost from pure luck.

Wolz was at home browsing on eBay, he says, when something in his head
told him to click on plantation floral fabric.

"I said, ‘Wow, that looks like the Little White House fabric,’" he
recalled. "I sent the picture to work and it matched" the 16 dining
room chairs and the living room’s drapes and couch. "I think it was
probably one in a million even to find it."

Another bit of luck: About a year ago, a longtime Key West resident
showed up with a battered chair that had been sitting on her porch for
years. Her husband had "saved it" from the Little White House while it
was abandoned. That chair goes with the six others around the poker
table, which got plenty of use by Truman.

Ken Hechler, 93, a speechwriter and aide for Truman, said the
president invited candidates for Cabinet and executive positions to
join the poker gang: "He would advise members of his staff to rib the
hell out of the guy to see if he’s got a thick enough skin to
withstand the barbs of the Washington press corps."

The house was built in 1890 by the Navy and was used by commandants of
the submarine base and their families. It became empty when a bachelor
commandant decided it was too big.

Prescribed relaxation

In 1947, Truman’s physician told him he needed a warm, relaxing place
to recover from a nagging cold and exhaustion. The vacant home on
naval property was perfect. Truman fell in love with the southernmost
city, spending 175 days of his presidency here.

Five other presidents also have used the house: William Howard Taft,
Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And in
2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell used the home for peace talks
between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"This house deserves this kind of restoration," Wolz said. "The chance
of us having a sitting president is slim now because we are surrounded
by residences and no longer a secure Navy base. But we probably will
continue to get past presidents."

For about $200, Wolz bought two Staffordshire collectible ceramic dogs
on eBay that matched ones in old Truman photographs. A Key West
importer is trying to find the 16-piece Lenox china place settings
that were used.

"And to show how crazy this gets, we had an elderly woman visitor come
into the museum and ask why we had Japanese frames," Wolz said. "She
was a friend of Margaret Truman and said her family was the official
framers to the White House. We were able to perfectly match the

Historic paint consultant Matthew Mosca spent a week at the Little
White House gathering 150 paint samples.

After analysis, he determined that many walls were not a bluish cool
gray as thought but more of a warm gray, almost beige, which was
popular after World War II.

The current restoration suffered a setback this year when the state
Legislature did not come through with $150,000 approved for
humidity-controlled air conditioning.

Although the state owns the registered historic site, it is financed
and maintained by a private nonprofit foundation. Wolz said the money
now will have to be borrowed, because the painting, wallpapering and
upholstering can not begin until there is new air conditioning.

"It’s already a wonderful site," said Mosca, who also worked on the
U.S. Capitol and George Washington’s Mount Vernon home.

"Once they get the refinements that can now be done, it will be one of
the most accurate historic restorations."