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The White House is a big tourist draw

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The Clintons may have renewed their lease on the White House for another term, but it remains a place with nearly two centuries of masters.

Hordes of visitors queue up during Washington's peak travel season from March 3 to Labor Day. You'll find that every president since George Washington (who was president before it was built) has left behind something - a change, an addition, a memory.There is no house or building in America containing such a vast heap of history.

Consider just the Red Room on the White House main state floor. Dolley Madison introduced the serving of whiskey to presidential guests there while her husband drummed up support for the War of 1812 down the hall. Mary Todd Lincoln sat reading the evening paper there while waiting for her husband to finish his day's labors. She also held at least one seance in the Red Room trying to contact her two dead little boys. President Grant and his old generals refought the Civil War on its carpet using salt shakers and nut dishes as troops.

It was in the Red Room that actor and George Bush pal Sylvester Stallone recently stood gazing in awe at a portrait of the beautiful Angelica Singleton Van Buren, the closest thing the American presidency has ever seen to a queen.

Though her portrait hangs over the Red Room fireplace, Angelica actually held sway in the adjoining Blue Room - on an actual throne, aping her chum and fellow "monarch" Queen Victoria of Britain.

Those taking the 15- to 20-minute self-guided walking tour of the main floors of the White House, or the 30- to 40-minute V.I.P. guided tour, often complain that they don't get to see the presidential family quarters that occupy the floors above.

According to White House historian William Seale, author of the two-volume "The President's House," published by the White House Historical Association, "they're really not missing anything.

"The State floors are my favorite part of the house," he said. "That's where it all happened."

Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton may have done some ghastly California and Arkansas things to the decor of the upstairs family quarters, but beyond that, it's not much more interesting up there than in the upstairs of any other house.

But the downstairs public rooms are the very essence of what was once called the President's Palace - and living history of the most enchanting sort.

They've been restored, decorated and furnished to look as they did in the nation's early 19th century Federalist period - a concept of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy's that was actually carried out by First Lady Pat Nixon.

This is a marked departure from the early Victorian era, when the White House more resembled the abode of "The Addams Family," with gloomy stained-glass windows and dark wood paneling and seeming acres of huge, ugly potted plants.

More recently, Hillary Clinton has suggested installing contemporary abstract art but has thus far confined herself to a few pieces of bulbous modern sculpture on the outside lawn.

Most visitors to the White House enter through the East Wing, which was begun by Teddy Roosevelt and completed, with the addition of war-time offices, by his cousin Franklin Roosevelt.

This leads to the Ground Floor, which until Teddy Roosevelt's expansive 1902 renovation was just a dank and creepy basement.

Now the rooms look palatial, indeed. Sumptuously red-carpeted, the Ground Floor Corridor is hung with life-size paintings of former First Ladies and lined with pedestaled busts of Washington and other presidents. Proceeding through it, one passes the Library and Vermeil Room (which are mostly just reception or holding rooms for guests waiting to go upstairs), and the China Room, containing that once-notorious red-rimmed china of Nancy Reagan and other presidential platters.

The long Ground Floor stairs lead up to the White House's Grand Foyer or Entrance Hall. As there never has been a proper ballroom in the house, this is where dancing has traditionally been done - except during the Polk administration, when the gracious but sternly Presbyterian Sarah Polk banned dancing. (She did introduce to White House custom "The Chief," a song she'd heard as a schoolgirl, and so may be forgiven.)

If guests have had to dance in the foyer of the presidents' house, for decades - at big state dinners and the like - they had to eat in the hallway, what is formally called Cross Hall, which runs the length of the house.

The alcoves one sees there now harboring busts of historical worthies were actually emplacements for woodburning stoves, which White House architects disguised by masking them with masonry designed to look like classical urns.

In Jefferson's day, the hall also functioned as a museum. Jefferson liked to collect things, especially from visiting Indian guests, and had bearskin rugs and Indian headdresses all about.

The Family Dining Room has always been where it is, and in the early 19th century was the State Dining Room, though accommodating few guests.

At the end of Cross Hall, where the Family Dining Room comes together with what is now the State Dining Room, there was the original grand staircase that Teddy Roosevelt had torn out in 1902 so he could enlarge the State Dining Room. A new staircase was erected to the side of the Grand Foyer, which is what the Clintons descend to greet important guests.

Teddy also created the West Wing, with its Oval Office, and made the term "White House" official.

In its original, smaller dimensions, the State Dining Room was used by Jefferson as his office. Before that, John Adams used it for his approximation of George Washington's famous presidential levees - highly formal occasions in which the president would officially greet important visitors - all male.

From the State Dining Room, one progresses east again through the Red Room to the Blue or Blue Oval Room, which opens toward the White House front door and has an immense window and balcony view of the South Lawn and the Washington Monument.

But the fanciest use of the Blue Room was by widower President Martin Van Buren's daughter-in-law, the nearly 6-foot beauty Angelica Singleton Van Buren, a South Carolina cousin of Dolley Madison's.

Taking her cue from friend Queen Victoria, Angelica held "tableaux" during White House receptions, dressing herself and a retinue of friends in ball gowns and posing herself on a throne and the others draped about her in the center of the Blue Room.

The adjoining Green Room was where Jefferson took breakfast and many dinners.



Self-guided tours

The White House is open for public self-guided tours from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesdays through Saturdays, except Christmas Day, New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and, this inaugural year, Jan. 17 through 22.

Free, time-stamped tickets are issued at the new White House Visitors' Center, 15th and E Streets, N.W., on a first-come, first-served basis the same day as the tours. There are no advance ticket sales and no individual may pick up more than four tickets. The visitors' center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., seven days a week, and lines form early as tickets are not issued after 10 a.m.

The visitors' center contains an excellent museum full of exhibitions and displays on First Family life and how the White House operates. There is no parking and tourists are advised to use public transportation. The Metro Center and Federal Triangle Metro subway stops are nearby.

For more information, including access for the disabled, call 202-456-7041.

Passes for guided V.I.P. tours, lasting from 8:15 to 8:45 a.m., can be obtained from one's senator or congressman, but are extremely hard to get, especially at inaugural time.

Two excellent guide books, also published by the White House Historical Association and available at the visitors' center, are highly recommended: "The White House: An Historic Guide" ($6.50 hardcover/$5 paperback), prepared with the National Geographic Society, and "The White House Garden" ($7.95/$5.95), by William Seale.