On this lunch time bike ride I stopped by a late-Federal style, buff-colored limestone townhouse known as “Blair House.” Located across from the White House at 1651–1653 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C., it is directly opposite the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and near the southwest corner of Lafayette Park.
The original townhouse at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue was built in 1824 as the private residence of Dr. Joseph Lovell, who was a member of the Continental Congress and the first Surgeon General of the United States. After Dr. Lovell’s death in 1836, the house was sold for $6,500. It was purchased by Francis Blair, who had previously moved to the nation’s capitol at the urging of President Andrew Jackson. It soon became known as Blair House, and has retained the moniker ever since.
Francis Preston Blair, Sr. was born in April of 1792 in Abingdon, Virginia. In 1811, after graduating from Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, he moved to nearby Frankfort, where he worked as a circuit court clerk and a journalist who frequently contributed articles and editorials to a local newspaper. Blair became an ardent follower of President Jackson, and his writings and editorials eventually garnered the attention of the President, who invited Blair to move to D.C. and take over a failing newspaper named The Globe. Blair turned the paper into a pro-administration publication, and became a successful newspaper publisher. He was also an influential advisor to President Jackson as a member of what became known as his “Kitchen Cabinet.” Blair also continued to be an insider in the administrations of Presidents Martin van Buren and Abraham Lincoln.
Beginning in 1837, seven years after moving to D.C., Blair and his wife Eliza and their three children took up residence in the townhouse, which would remain in the family for over a century. In 1859, Blair built a red brick townhouse next door, to the left of to Blair House, at 1653 Pennsylvania Avenue, for his daughter, Elizabeth Blair Lee, and her husband, Samuel Phillips Lee, a third cousin of Robert E. Lee. In 1942, after being purchased by the U.S. government, the houses were combined, along with two other adjacent townhouses. The complex is sometimes referred to as the Blair-Lee House, though Blair House remains the official name.
Blair House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and is now managed by the U.S. State Department and serves as the President of the United State;s official guest house. However, one President, Harry Truman, actually resided there during an extensive renovation of the White House. As a side note, during President Truman’s time in residence at Blair House it was also the scene of an assassination attempt in which the first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty, and to date the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President, occurred.
Today Blair House is primarily used to house foreign heads of state and their delegations, and flies their countries’ flags when foreign leaders stay there. It is also occasionally used for domestic guests, which has included several presidents-elect and their families prior to their initial inauguration.
During the 1980s, Blair House underwent significant restorations, with a new wing added on the north. The combined square footage of the entire complex now exceeds 70,000 square feet, making it more massive than its famous neighbor, The White House, which is approximately 55,000 square feet. And what started as a simple private residence has now expanded to consist of 110 rooms, including several conference rooms and sitting rooms, 23 bedrooms, 35 bathrooms, and 4 dining rooms, as well as several kitchens, laundry and dry cleaning facilities, and an exercise room. It even has a hair salon and a florist shop.
As I visited this house that has long been associated with important events in American history, and in recent times, world history, I couldn’t help but wonder what Francis Preston Blair, Sr. would think if he could see his former residence today.