At age 20, John Zweifel visited the White House and toured the five rooms that are open to the public, but he longed to see the rest of the official residence of our nation’s presidents.
The experience laid the cornerstone for his lifelong labor of love—a 60-by-20-foot replica of the White House that has traveled to all 50 states and been visited by millions of people who may never step inside the mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C.
“I want to give people the feeling that the president called up and said, ‘Come on over,'” says John, 69. “The White House transcends politics. It’s the people’s house.”
John and his wife, Jan, began building the 1-inch-to-1-foot scale model in 1962. In the years since, they have spent more than $1 million creating tiny moldings, mantels, portraits and pieces of furniture for their White House in Miniature. When the 10-ton mansion is not on tour, its permanent home is at the couple’s Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont, Fla. (pop. 9,333), near their home in Orlando.
“It’s just gorgeous,” says Helen Lombardo, of Overland Park, Kan., during a January visit to the replica White House at the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, Mo.
Lights glow, telephones ring, televisions play, clocks tick and the water fountain in the Jacqueline Kennedy Garden flows. The State Dining Room is set for 80 guests with gold-painted pewter chairs that weigh 3 ounces each. Glassblowers spent three months making wine, water and champagne glasses for the tables. An army of craftspeople has helped with the project.
The chandeliers in the East Room are hand-blown glass with 55 light bulbs, each the size of a grain of rice with hair-like electrical wires. It takes five hours to change the chandeliers’ delicate bulbs.
The Zweifels’ six children joined the family mission as they grew old enough to help. Oldest son Jack spent hundreds of hours carving the most intricate piece, a replica of the rosewood table in the Lincoln Bedroom. The 2-and-1/2-inch-tall marble-topped table has storks carved in the legs and grape clusters fringing the tabletop. John carved the replica of the famous 6-by-9-foot Lincoln bed.
Work on the miniature White House is never finished. Each time the Oval Office is redecorated by its new occupant, identical changes are made to the Zweifels’ small-scale model.
“My favorite Oval Office was (Richard) Nixon’s,” Jan says, “because it was all in royal blue and gold, probably the most regal of them all.”
One of her favorite comments about their creation came from Bill Clinton, who opened the exhibit in 1979 in Little Rock when he was governor of Arkansas. “He pointed to the replica and said, ‘Someday, I’m going to live in that house.'”
The Zweifels did “live” at the White House for two weeks in 1975, taking photographs and measurements. Before then, they worked from photographs and details memorized during public tours, sometimes four a day.
“Every president since (Gerald) Ford has patted me on the back and said, ‘Keep going,'” John says.
Building the White House replica seemed like a natural project to John, who by age 6 was carving tiny ponies and trapeze artists for circus scenes to entertain his invalid grandmother.
By 15, John was creating window displays for Chicago department stores and has worked ever since in the display and entertainment business. His passion, though, has been building the White House in Miniature and taking it to the people.
“It’s a very, very accurate re-creation of the White House,” says Rex Scouten, 81, of Fairfax, Va., who retired as White House curator in 1998. “It’s a magnificent gift to the nation.”
Visit www.houseofpresidents.com or call (352) 394-2836 for more information.