All About the Vice President's Rarely-Seen Residence, One Observatory Circle

Number One Observatory Circle

When Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff move into Number One Observatory Circle in Washington, D.C., they will be the eighth vice-presidential family in American history to do so.

The official residence of the veep — often referred to as the Superintendent’s House, the Admiral’s House, or simply VPR (vice president’s residence) — the property has been home to every vice president since Walter Mondale (who served under Jimmy Carter) in 1977.

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The Grounds

Built in 1893, the home is located on 12 of the 72 acres of land that comprise the U.S. Naval Observatory, a government agency where scientists work on providing astronomy-related insights for the U.S. Navy and Department of Defense. It’s located approximately two-and-a-half miles north of the White House, the President’s official residence. 

Before it housed American vice presidents, Number One Observatory Circle first served as a home for U.S. Naval Observatory superintendents. Twelve superintendents lived in the home, then, according to the White House, “the house was so lovely that in 1923, the chief of naval operations kicked out the superintendent so he could move in himself.” 

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The Architect

The 33-room Victorian-style property was built by Washington resident and architect Leon E. Dessez, who had a hand in creating plans for the Washington Monument before he passed away in 1918.

Utilizing a Queen Anne-style architectural design, which was popular at the time, Dessez imbued the home with a sense of grandeur by giving it an expansive reception hall, classic columns, a wraparound porch, elegant turrets and more.

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The Design

According to author Charles Denyer, who has written one of the most detailed books on the property, titled Number One Observatory Circle, the three-story house cost approximately $20,000 to build.

It measures approximately 9,150 square feet of living space. The second floor is where the main suite, office and den are located, while the other bedrooms — typically used for guests and family members — can be found on the third floor.

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The History

Prior to 1974, vice presidents lived in their own homes, and those who did not own properties in or around Washington were put up in hotels, according to the New York Times

“The cost of securing these private residences grew substantially over the years,” according to the White House. This cost — plus the challenges the Secret Service faced by having to learn how to properly secure all the different locations — led Congress to come up with a more permanent solution. 

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The First Second Family

Walter and Joan Mondale, the home’s first VP, is pictured here hosting President Jimmy and First Lady Rosalynn Carter for dinner in January 1977.

Congress actually first designated Number One Observatory Circle as the vice president’s residence in 1974, but no one moved in for three years. According to the White House, this is because “Vice President Gerald Ford acceded to the Presidency before he could use the home, and his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, only used it for entertaining.” 

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The Residents

In addition to Mondale, George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden and Mike Pence have all called Number One Observatory Circle their home during their vice presidency — each bringing their own unique changes and additions to the residence. 

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The Inside

Though tours of the home are not available to the public, photographers and reporters are let in from time to time, allowing glimpses at the ways the property has changed through the years. 

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George H.W. Bush’s Additions

George H.W. Bush, who served as Vice President from 1981 to 1989 and then as President from 1989 to 1993, added a few outdoor features to Number One Observatory Circle, including a horseshoe pit and a quarter-mile-long running track. 

According to the Washington Post, the Bush family entertained frequently during their time in the home, hosting more than 900 parties. 

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Dan Quayle’s Additions

Vice President Dan Quayle, who served from 1989 to 1993 and is seen here hosting Prince Charles in February 1989, had to delay his move into the home for a month so that extensive renovations could take place.

Like Bush, Quayle also added a few features that have kept the home’s residents happy and healthy: an exercise room on the top floor, and a pool out back. 

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The Pool

In 2010, now-President Biden told reporters that Quayle was his “favorite vice president” because he put in the pool, noting, “my granddaughters love it.” 

Pence and his wife, Karen, used it to hold yearly pool parties for military families. 

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The Biden Era

Joe and Jill Biden, whose tenure lasted from 2009 to 2017, are seen here hosting a barbeque for wounded service members in May 2010.

The Bidens welcomed many guests and even made it a tradition to host Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny on St. Patrick’s Day for all eight years they were in the home.

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Joe and Jill Biden’s Additions

In 2012, Joe and Jill Biden created the Family Heritage Garden of the Vice President, located just off the front lawn. Stone pavers surrounding a fountain commemorate all of the vice-presidential family members (including kids and pets!) that have ever called Number One Observatory Circle home.

Jill told the Washington Post in 2017 that the idea was inspired by the White House Children’s Garden.

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Joe’s Love Note

In 2010, Joe surprised Jill with a sweet Valentine’s Day present: a commemorative plaque reading “Joe Loves Jill” affixed to a tall tree in the backyard, which still hangs there today. 

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The Pence Era

Vice President Mike Pence and his family lived on the property while he served under President Donald Trump from 2017 to 2021.

Here, they’re pictured on the front porch of the home on Inauguration Day in 2017. 

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Mike and Karen Pence’s Additions

In addition to hanging some of Karen’s watercolors (she’s an artist by trade), the Pences also added a few more prominent features to the historic property. 

According to the Washington Post, the family added a beehive in 2017. A nod to their home state of Indiana, they also put a “Hoosiers” logo on the basketball court — making sure it was removable for the next resident. 

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New Digs!

Officially sworn in on January 20, 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff will be Number One Observatory Circle’s next residents — and there’s certainly plenty of room for their blended family. They’re sure to put their own special touches on the home! 

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