Taking the Torture Out of the Tour

White House Visitor Center to Eliminate
Long Lines in Heat, Cold

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer

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 to see."

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 are available.

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 of funding.

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."

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