A house says a lot about a person, and that’s often the case when the person in question is a president. Visit Mount Vernon and you’ll see the gears in George Washington’s mind turning toward agriculture, not war or politics. Drop my Monticello and everywhere you look you’ll find examples of Jefferson’s passion for science, literature, natural history and just about everything else. And in Gerald Ford’s house in Alexandria, you’ll see a suburban dad. A regular guy. Just like you figured, right?
The Fords built the house on Crown View Drive in the 1950’s, after Jerry won a second term in Congress and realized he might not be moving back to Michigan for a while. There was plenty of room for a growing family – four bedrooms, a fireplace, a garage – and a good-sized yard, complete with a swingset and a pool. Not too far away from downtown, maybe a mile or so from the train – a pretty good setup for any family, really. “It was very normal, very middle American,” son Jack Ford remembered. “You’d jump on your bike and go riding down the street, and your parents didn’t worry about you.”
Then, in 1973, something fairly important happened: Congressman Ford became Vice President Ford. By then lawmakers had made the Naval Observatory the official veep house, but work crews were still doing renovations, so the Fords stayed on Crown View, albeit with thick bulletproof glass added to the master bedroom window, a Secret Service command post in the garage and steel reinforcing bars in the driveway, so the concrete wouldn’t buckle when the vice president’s armored limo pulled in. Also: the basement was off-limits; all the old paint cans and Christmas decorations stuck behind security equipment.
And then, August 8, 1974: President Nixon announced he was resigning, which meant Alexandria’s first citizen was about to become the nation’s first citizen. The next morning the press converged on Crown View to get a glimpse of the new president’s morning routine and maybe even get a statement. They got neither, though the nearby Abbruzzese family did let reporters use their phone while they waited. (The reporters later gave the Abbruzzeses a sign for the garage, stating “First press room of President Gerald R. Ford, August 8, 1974.”)
The Fords stayed home for the first ten days of Jerry’s presidency. Ostensibly this was so the White House staff could prepare the living quarters for the Ford family, but in a way it reinforced President Ford’s steady, no-drama tone as he tried to steer the country out of Watergate and back to normalcy. It’s hard to see an “imperial presidency,” after all, when you see the president stepping out in his pajamas to grab the morning paper.
Calm, yes, but maybe not quite normal: son Steve Ford said his mother, Betty, noted the following early in her tenure as First Lady: “Jerry, something’s wrong here. You just became president of the United States and I’m still cooking.” You’d think the president would have come back with some kind of witty sitcom-style one-liner but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
The Fords did move to the White House, and though they said they intended to return to Alexandria at the end of Jerry’s presidency, they actually moved to California instead, and the house on Crown View became a rental property. And you know how those get.
“It was super cool,” onetime resident Brewster Thackeray told the Washington Post. And while Mr. Thackeray was impressed by the sense of history in the house, so, too, was he intrigued by the prospects of turning the president’s refrigerator into a “kegorator” and holding toga parties around the presidential pool.
The neighborhood seems to have settled back down – and I attribute that to the fact that former Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey moved next door – so much so that you’d never guess there was anything noteworthy about the house, except for the National Historic Landmark plaque just to the right of the front door. Which is far as you can get – it’s a private residence, so don’t drop by in a toga and ask “so when does the pool party start?”