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The history behind Kamala Harris' new vice presidential residence

Harris becomes the eighth vice president to live at Number One Observatory Circle as she and her husband continue a 44-year history at the 19th century home.
Number One Observatory Circle
Kamala Harris and her husband are moving into the vice president's official residence at Number One Observatory Circle in Washington, D.C., after waiting months for renovations to be done. Hansrad Collection / Alamy
/ Source: TODAY

Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, are ready to put their personal stamp on a 128-year-old house that seven former vice presidents have called home.

The vice president and second gentleman are moving into the official residence of the vice president this week after having waited more than two months while the Queen Anne-style house was being renovated.

The white house at Number One Observatory Circle in northwest Washington, D.C., which is not open to the public like portions of the White House, is an often overlooked property that has been the residence of vice presidents and their families for 44 years.

It sits on a hilltop on the 72-acre compound of the United States Naval Observatory, with 12 acres allotted to the vice president's residence, and four acres to the 9,000-square-foot home itself.

As Harris gets set to make history as the first female, first Black woman and first South Asian woman to reside in the home as vice president, here's a look at the home over the years.

What is the history of the residence?

The home did not become the official residence of the vice president until 1977, but it was built for about $20,000 in 1893 after being designed by architect Leon E. Dessez, according to the 2017 book "Number One Observatory Circle: The Home of the Vice President of the United States," by Charles Denyer.

It was supposed to be the home of the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Observatory, but the chief of naval operations took a liking to it so he booted out the superintendent and took the house himself, according to the White House.

The building features classical columns, a large porch in the front, a grand entry hall and bay windows. The grounds also house telescopes, libraries and a dedicated landing area for Marine One and Marine Two, the helicopters that transport the president and vice president, respectively.

The home was originally built in 1893 and was not designated as the official residence of the vice president until 1975 after congressional hearings. AP

Since the public is not allowed inside, no one seems to know exactly how many rooms the home contains because the information isn't released publicly for security reasons. It has been reported that there are as many as 33 and as little as five, Denyer summarized in his book.

It wasn't designated as a home for the vice president until a joint resolution passed by Congress in 1974 over the objections of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, who was living there at the time before his tenure ended.

Prior to Number One Observatory Circle, vice presidents lived everywhere from apartments to hotel rooms to suburban homes, which became a headache for the Secret Service to always be changing security protocols to accommodate new residences.

The house became the vice president's official residence in 1975, but sitting Vice President Nelson Rockefeller decided to stay in his mansion in Washington, D.C., and did not move in. The first occupants were Walter Mondale and his family in 1977, after he became the veep under President Jimmy Carter.

Changes over the years

There were some kinks to work out after the Mondales first moved in, as the hot water often ran out and rusty water came out of the faucet in the bathtub, according to Denyer's book.

His wife, Joan Mondale, started traditions like filling the home with art on loan from galleries and entertaining guests and dignitaries. In a scene hard to imagine today, Walter Mondale even cooked a meal of fettuccine and grilled fish for 70 newspaper reporters at the residence in 1980, Denyer wrote.

George H.W. Bush had a horseshoe pit added during his time as vice president under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s so he could enjoy one of his favorite pastimes. He also loved jogging the grounds so much that he continued to do so even after being elected president in 1988.

The home, shown here in 1900, occupies four acres on a 72-acre compound at the United States Naval Observatory. Mansell / The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The grounds also featured a tree swing, where he loved to push his granddaughters, TODAY's Jenna Bush Hager and her twin sister, Barbara.

Dan Quayle, who had a young, sports-mad family when he moved in the residence, had a backyard pool installed in 1991 along with an exercise room. He and his wife, Marilyn, also started a tradition of welcoming trick-or-treaters on Halloween.

Harris and Emhoff are not the first vice presidential couple to delay moving in for months after being elected, as Al Gore and his family waited six months in 1993 to move in after he was elected vice president under Bill Clinton. The home was 100 years old by that point and had leaky pipes, asbestos and plumbing issues that resulted in a $1.6 million renovation, according to multiple reports at the time.

Gore's daughter, Karenna, got married on the grounds of the residence in 1997, with Aretha Franklin performing for the bride and groom's first dance, according to The Washington Post.

Lynne Cheney, the wife of George W. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, gave a glimpse at the residence in a 2001 article in Architectural Digest that showed off the Western flair the couple from Wyoming added after moving in.

President Joe Biden, shown speaking at the vice president's residence in 2012, particularly enjoyed the home's backyard pool. Carolyn Kaster / AP

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden also spent eight years living there during his time as President Barack Obama's vice president. Much like George H.W. Bush, Jill Biden was also known for jogging around the grounds, and the family hosted Thanksgiving there for wounded military veterans.

The president reminisced about his time there compared to his new home at the White House during a town hall with CNN's Anderson Cooper in February.

"The vice president’s residence was totally different," he said. "You’re on 80 acres, overlooking the rest of the city. And you can walk out, and there’s a swimming pool. You can walk off a porch in the summer and jump in a pool, and go into work. You can ride a bicycle around and never leave the property and work out."

The newest residents

Harris will become the first non-white male to occupy the home as vice president in its history when she and Emhoff move in.

Over the years, it has always been the vice president's wives entertaining dignitaries and celebrities at the home, so Emhoff looks to be the first husband tasked with that job.

Vice presidential spouses like Barbara Bush and Jill Biden have also used the home to promote causes like literacy and helping wounded military veterans during their time there, so it remains to be seen what Emhoff may champion.

Harris and Emhoff were waiting to move in while repairs were made to the HVAC system, the liners in the chimneys were replaced, and some of the hardwood floors were refurbished, Harris spokesperson Symone Sanders said.

They were living in Blair House, a president's guest house located across the street on Pennsylvania Avenue, while the repairs were being made. A moving van was spotted outside the home on Tuesday night, and a senior administration official told NBC News that Harris and Emhoff are now moving into their new home.

CORRECTION APRIL 12 8:20 A.M.: An earlier version of this article misstated that Doug Emhoff is first gentleman. He is second gentleman.