The Naval Observatory is lit pink in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (Official White House Photo by Sonya N. Hebert, Oct. 1, 2012)
It has been more than two months since Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president of the United States, a historic moment for the country, as Harris is the first woman and the first woman of color to hold the second highest office in the land. Yet, Harris — along with her husband, Georgetown Law professor Douglas Emhoff — is still, ostensibly, living out of suitcases, unable to move into the private residence reserved for the vice president because it’s still undergoing renovations.
It’s unclear why the renovations are taking so long, said one administration official, but it’s a situation that has left Harris increasingly and understandably bothered, according to several people who spoke to CNN about her situation. “She is getting frustrated,” said another administration official, noting with each passing day the desire to move into her designated house — a stately, turreted mansion two-and-a-half miles from the White House — grows more intense.
The second couple continues to live in temporary housing at Blair House, the President’s official guest quarters, just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
The administration has provided no official explanation for the delay, and a spokesperson for Harris did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
CNN has looked at various government contracts, awarded for myriad issues at the vice president’s residence over the last few years, many of which detail intensive foundational work. From recently wrapped projects on a retention pond to a replaced tank system for $164,000 from last September, repairs and upkeep appear constant. There’s also an ongoing $3.8 million contract for “plumbing, heating and air-conditioning contractors,” according to the contract on the United States government spending website.
The contracts, while substantial, aren’t overtly egregious in terms of cost and expectation, considering the home is 9,000-plus square feet and was built in 1893. Tax records from 2018 indicate $119,000 in expenses were used to provide updates and improvements in and around the grounds of the residence, for example. However, the current contracts do not address specifically why the vice president is still not living there, which is leading to growing questions — and agitation — about the pace of the work.
Harris has recently been spotted at her future home, popping in for an hour-long visit three weeks ago, per CNN. Two administration staff with knowledge of the ongoing updates told CNN that Harris — who likes to cook — requested work be done on the kitchen.
It is not unusual for there to be at least a couple of weeks between residents, so the Naval staff who operate the home can refresh, said Elizabeth Haenle, who served as vice president residence manager and social secretary for former Vice President Dick Cheney. “From time to time, the Navy will ask the vice president and their respective families to delay moving in so that they have time for maintenance and upgrades that are not easy to perform once the vice president takes up residence,” Haenle said.
Shortly after inauguration, a Harris aide told CNN the vice president wouldn’t be immediately moving in, citing the need for some repairs to the home “that are more easily conducted with the home unoccupied.” A move-in date was still to be determined at the time. Another administration official told CNN some of the work included renovating the home’s chimneys — there are seven working fireplaces — as well as other updates.
Lacking the comforts of home
Although Blair House provides comfortable, even luxurious, accommodations, Harris and Emhoff’s current surroundings lack the creature comforts of a home. Antiques and museum-quality pieces of American history deck each of the 100-plus rooms, which include a gym and a private hair salon. And although the professional, full-time staff of more than a dozen provide amenities as accommodating as a luxury hotel, Blair House does not offer the laid-back vibe Harris and Emhoff are said to prefer when they are home. The couple enjoy a more casual, West Coast informality, with frequent visits from family and large Sunday suppers, the former California senator has said.
The main bedroom suite at Blair House was redecorated by celebrity interior designer Thomas Pheasant, brought on in 2012 to make updates to overall décor, and includes a massive, canopied bed draped in luxe fabrics and furnishings that are more reminiscent of Mount Vernon than a California modern mood. Her condo in Washington, DC, which she moved out of to live at Blair House, was inside a sleek, eco-chic, minimalist building in the city’s West End neighborhood.
When the second couple does finally move into One Observatory Circle, where the vice president’s residence is located on the grounds of the Naval Observatory, they will find a home quite unlike their city condo or Blair House, but also very different from the White House. There are far fewer formalities, fewer staff and more freedom.
“The White House is office and home to the President so there is that feeling of living above the ‘shop’ at the White House,” said Haenle. “For the vice president and his or her family, the Vice President’s Residence — or VPR — is calm in the midst of a stormy Washington, both politically and logistically. At the end of the day, the vice president can travel a short distance northwest and find respite in a country-like setting.” Deer often roam the property, though in reality it is a stone’s throw from DC’s downtown office buildings and city traffic.
‘You’re gonna love the pool’
The dozens of acres that make up the grounds of the Naval Observatory offer privacy and the ability to move about with more leisure than can the President and first lady at the White House. Biden last month at a CNN Town Hall referred to the White House as a “gilded cage,” and lamented not having the same accoutrements at his disposal as when he lived at the vice president’s residence for eight years.
“You’re on 80 acres, overlooking the rest of the city,” said Biden. “You can walk out, and there’s a swimming pool. … You can ride a bicycle around and never leave the property, and work out — but the White House is very different.” (The vice president’s mansion actually sits on 13-gated acres of the land, not 80 — the entire Naval Observatory compound, with several separate buildings and offices unrelated to the residence, is 72 acres.)
It was former Vice President Dan Quayle who had the heated pool installed, and it became Biden’s treasured refuge. While vice president, Biden would throw raucous summer pool parties for staff and their families, bringing out water cannons and partaking in drenching shoot-outs with the children who attended. In 2017, shortly after moving in, then-second lady Karen Pence shared in an interview Biden’s parting words to her just after her husband, Mike Pence, was sworn in: “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.’”
Harris, who early in her vice presidency was spotted running up and down the steps at the Lincoln Memorial for her workout, Secret Service agents nearby, will have the outdoor space to jog, swim and workout at her new home — without the public spotting her and posting videos on social media. Harris has said she works out every morning, and swimming can sometimes be a part of her routine — another reason the vice presidential pool is a perk.
A vice president who likes to cook
Should she wish to add her personal signature to the residence or its grounds — such as Quayle did with the pool or George H.W. Bush did with an outdoor horseshoe pit or the Bidens did with a garden where the names of all the home’s occupants, pets included, are engraved — updates and tweaks can circumvent the elaborate process of approvals that any changes at the White House must go through.
However, as with the White House, a separate foundation has been established to cover most updates with government-provided funds. Also like the White House, the vice president has at her disposal roomfuls of historic furnishings and decorative arts from which to choose from as part of a private collection reserved for the President and vice president to make their temporary homes feel homey and to their personal tastes. Karen Pence once said she left the residence rooms set up in much the same way as the Biden’s had it before them, since the Pences liked the layout and saw no reason to upend it.
“It is a home with a lot of history and character, but over the years the Navy has kept it well-maintained and upgraded it,” Haenle said. “During my time with the Cheney’s, we logged the inventory of the house and restored furnishings and art going back to the Rockefellers and Mondale’s.”
Harris is known to derive satisfaction from cooking, and she’s no doubt hungering for the personal space to do that. She once said in an interview with New York Magazine’s “The Cut,” “If I’m cooking, I feel like I’m in control of my life.” Harris and Emhoff are fond of their nights in, and enjoy sharing time in the kitchen and good food. The couple, separately and together, are frequent patrons of Stachowski’s Market, a butcher shop and mini-gourmet provisions store located on a quaint corner in Georgetown.
For at-home entertaining, the residence offers “a wrap-around veranda that faces away from the busy streets of Northwest Washington,” notes Haenle. “It is a special place and makes for great Sunday afternoon family gatherings,” while still being formal enough to welcome heads of state.
Last May, Harris told Glamour magazine she was getting Emhoff more involved in cooking; her schedule can no longer handle the hands-on approach she likes to take in the kitchen. “It takes him about four hours to do what I do in an hour, but it is delicious so I just have to be quiet and let it happen,” she said.
But it’s the meditative and relaxing quality of cooking up family meals that Harris has cited in multiple interviews as therapeutic, and it’s something she’s still waiting to do in her official residence.
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This article originally appeared in The Atlanta Voice.