Taking the Torture Out of the Tour
White House Visitor Center to Eliminate
Long Lines in Heat, Cold
By Anthony Faiola
The White House, taking a cue from other attractions, is trying
to become friendlier to tourists.
An indoor visitor center in the Great Hall of the
nearby Commerce Department building opens Tuesday. It is intended
to give people a place to wait comfortably instead of having to
stand outside in long lines on the Ellipse during summer's heat
and winter's cold.
The $3.7 million White House Visitors Center, a complete
renovation of the historic U.S. patent research library, is more
than an air-conditioned alternative for tired tourists--60 of
whom required emergency medical aid last year for everything from
heat exhaustion to heart attacks while waiting to see the White
House. Indeed, one tourist died of heart failure last summer
after standing in line for hours.
The center is intended to entertain and educate the 1.25 million
tourists who make the pilgrimage to the White House each year. In
a sense, the center's exhibits personalize the mansion, making up
a photo album that captures candid moments in the lives of
America's first families.
Visitors can check out a portrait of the Ford family looking
like the presidential Brady Bunch in wide ties and '70s lapels;
see Mrs. Lincoln, heavy with sadness at a nation's loss; or catch
Chelsea Clinton, beaming a shy smile and clutching her playful
First Cat, Socks.
Also, by making one of Washington's most visible spots more
friendly, tourism leaders hope to improve the perception of the
government with visitors.
"I think it humanizes the whole idea of the White House as a
piace where actual people live," said J. Carter Brown, director
emeritus of the National Gallery of Art. He toured the center two
weeks ago to offer comments to the National Park Service, which
built and will manage the center.
"It gives the sweep of its history, and you begin to get a shiver
down your spine when you think about how many generations have
lived there, and how much history has been made there," he added.
Inside the center, four National Park Service rangers will give
tickets to as many as 4,800 visitors each Tuesday through
Saturday morning, when the White House rolls out the welcome mat
for the public. Each ticket will have a specific time on it,
so visitors can browse through the center's exhibits or see other
local monuments before their scheduled tour.
At tour time, visitors will gather in an outside staging area on
the Ellipse, and are shuffled quickly to the White House East
Gate. Tourists shouldn't be outside for more ttaan 20 minutes.
That compares with four hours or more under the old system for
the 20-minute glimpse inside the mansion, said James I. McDaniel,
associate regional director of the National Park Service.
"We came here three years ago (during the summer] and just about
dehydrated," said Julia Caputo, 41, of Sacramento, Calif.,
waiting for a White House tour yesterday with her daughter,
Pauline, as they clutched umbrellas to fend off the rain. Her
husband, unwilling to wait, was off wandering through the
National Air and Space Museum.
"I think the White House is one of the most important things to
see in Washington," she said. "But they don't make it very easy
The center isn't intended to increase the number of visitors to
the White House--now only the 17th most popular attradion in
Washington because of the short period in the morning when tours
Rather, it is aimed at enhancing the experience, and giving those
unwilling or unable to take the tour a chance to see pieces of
the mansion's history during the afterndon and early evening.
The Park Service and local tourism leaders notified concierges
at area hotels of the new center, so they advise guests. Signs
will also be posted at White House gates and the old ticket
center on the Ellipse.
The project stems from a 1990 survey commissioned by the
National Park Service, which manages the monuments on the
Ellipse. Visitors questioned strongly suggested that the Park
Service revamp the White House tour system.
The answer was the Great Hall, also known as the Malcolm
Baldrige Hall, inside the building that houses the Department of
Commerce and the National Aquarium. The once grand hall, built in
1929 to hold the patent library, had fallen into disrepair--its
walls covered in 60 years of tobacco smoke, its ceiling blackened
with mildew and its arched arcades filed with ventilation pipes.
The Great Hall formerly housed the ill-fated Washington Tourist
Information Center, which moved to a smaller site two blocks
north in 1988, and finally closed in November because of a lack
Yesterday, some touism officials cautioned that the new White
House center isn't a true substitute for the information center.
Still, they said that the area might benefit by making it easier
to visit the White House.
"If tourists arrive in town, and the White House is the first
thing they do, and they discover that they don't have to wait
outside for three hours anymore, their trip begins with a
pleasurable experience, and that helps throughout the rest of
their stay in Washington," said E. Savannah Little, director of
the District's Office of Tourism and Promotions.
It's possible, McDaniel said, that the center may grow into a
larger attraction in the future. The Park Service is now drafting
a master plan for the Ellipse, and one aspect may be an
underground walkway leading to the White House, complete with a
pretour movie and high-tech exhibits.
"Obviously, that's in the future, McDaniel said. "The only way
to do something more elaborate would be to bring the private
sector into it for funding. Money for these things is becoming
more difficult to come by in Washington these days."
Washington Post Staff Writer
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