Step inside the Harry S. Truman Little White House, and you’ll be forgiven for feeling the sudden urge to solve domestic policy issues while on vacation. It’s here, inside this spectacular circa 1890 home, that some of the nation’s most influential leaders have retreated from the public eye to rest, recuperate and bring new meaning to the term “working vacation.” And while history buffs might know that former U.S. President Harry S. Truman spent so many hours hammering out deals inside the home that it was rechristened the Little White House, few know the full history of this remarkable place, and just how much our lives today benefit from the secret meetings that happened inside its hallowed walls.
Before Truman himself had stepped foot inside the Truman Little White House, the building served as a residence for the Key West Naval Station’s base commandant and paymaster. Borrowing from both Victorian and West Indian architectural traditions, the home offered its residents a secluded and breezy retreat from naval station life.
The beginning of World War I saw the Key West Naval Station take on a vital role in the U.S war effort. Inventor Thomas Edison volunteered to aid the U.S. war effort, living at Little White House for six months while he developed a total of 41 weapons. After Mr. Edison’s departure, the house remained command headquarters through World War II, when Key West was tasked with protecting Allied ships off the Straits of Florida.
At the end of the war, then-President Harry S. Truman was both physically and emotionally exhausted, prompting his doctor to prescribe a vacation somewhere warm and secure. At the recommendation of his friend, Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, the president headed south. He was immediately taken with the charm and restorative climate of Key West, and that first trip in 1946 began what would amount to 11 total working vacations spent at the naval base commander’s home. While on-island, White House staff from Washington was flown into Key West for important meetings (or, on occasion, poker games and fishing trips) and documents sent from the Little White House were stamped as having been sent from The White House,
U.S. Naval Station, Key West, Florida. In total, President Truman would spend 175 days of his presidency governing from the Little White House. President Truman also used the Little White House as a base from which to formulate the Marshall Plan, the recognition of the state of Israel, the Truman Doctrine, a civil rights executive order requiring federal contractors to hire minorities, and a two-week cease-fire agreement for Korea. After his presidency, he would return to Key West five more times — each time staying in a downtown private residence, but making sure to visit his beloved Little White House.
The Little White House continued to serve as a White House of America; in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the Little White House as a place to convalesce after a heart attack, while six years later, President John F. Kennedy hosted British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at Little White House for a one-day summit before the Bay of Pigs crisis. After the failed invasion, President Kennedy returned to the Little White House in 1962 to perform inspections following the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After President Truman’s death in 1974, the Navy Base (renamed the Truman Annex) on which the Little White House stood was closed, and the house abandoned. It remained unoccupied for 12 years, during which unscrupulous residents of Key West were rumored to have broken in and helped themselves to the former president’s furniture. Developer Pritam Singh purchased the annex at an auction in 1986 and immediately took out an ad in a local newspaper requesting that all those who had borrowed furniture from the Little White House return the items, and thanked the residents of Key West for looking after the antiques for so long. Much of the original furniture was returned, and Singh transferred ownership of the Little White House to the state of Florida for its use as a museum, after which he privately funded the building’s restoration.
Today, approximately 78,000 visitors tour the house annually.
The Harry S. Truman Little White House is located at 111 Front St., and is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with frequent tours. For more information, call (305) 294-9911 or visit www.trumanlittlewhitehouse.com. ¦