Where Does the U.S. Vice President Live?

By: Patrick J. Kiger  | 

VP residence
Number One Observatory Circle, the residence of the U.S. vice president, is located on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post/Getty Images

Most people probably know that the U.S. president lives and works in the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., in Washington, D.C., one of the most famous homes on the planet, and a symbol of the power and prestige of the presidency.

But what about the vice president, the No. 2 in the line of succession to the nation's highest office? It's a post that's become increasingly important as a source of policy advice and legislative lobbying muscle in presidential administrations, but does it come with an official residence as well?

The answer is yes. Since the mid-1970s, the vice president has had a mansion of his (now her) own as well, and though it's not as well known as the White House, it's pretty fancy and historic in its own right.

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Where Does the VP Live?

The vice president's residence, located on the grounds of the United States Naval Observatory about 2.5 miles (4.02 kilometers) northwest of the White House, doesn't have a similarly iconic name. Instead, it's often referred to prosaically as the VPR, or by using its address, Number One Observatory Circle.

"It's probably due to the fact that a catchy name simply didn't develop," explains Kyle Kopko, an adjunct professor of political science at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, and the author of two books on vice presidential candidates. "The White House wasn't originally called that. It developed over time. Originally the White House was called the executive mansion, or president's mansion, or various generic combinations throughout history." According to the White House Historical Association, the presidential mansion wasn't officially named the White House until 1901.

But don't let that nondescript nomenclature fool you. No. 1 Observatory Circle, built in 1893, is an ornate three-story Queen Anne-style brick Victorian home with 9,150 square feet (850 square meters) of interior space, according to Gail S. Cleere's 1989 book, "The House on Observatory Hill: Home of the Vice President of the United States."

"The demands of the vice presidency and the need for security necessitate a government-owned house for the vice president and the second family," Kopko says. "The establishment of an official vice presidential residence also coincides with the rise of the office's informal power. Historically, the office of the vice president was not very powerful, and the vice president mainly assumed ceremonial duties. However, that changed over time. Vice presidents now play significant advisory roles, oversee policy, and assume a variety of responsibilities on behalf of the president."

VP residence
Prince Charles of Great Britain talks with Vice President Dan Quayle at the vice president's residence on Feb. 17, 1989.
Bettmann/Getty Images

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The History of the Residence

Designed by Washington architect Leon E. Dessez and built by a Philadelphia-based construction firm, the house originally was intended to serve as the home of the superintendent of the Naval Observatory, and to be a "gracious country house after the style of the time," as Cleere wrote.

The ground floor consists of a reception hall, living room, sitting room, sun porch and dining room and pantry, plus offices that were added on the home's north side, according to Cleere's book. The second floor contains two bedrooms, a study, and a den, while the third floor has four more rooms, which originally served as servants' quarters and storage areas. In the basement, there's a kitchen, laundry room and more storage.

A dozen observatory superintendents lived in the house from 1893 to 1927. But the mansion was coveted by various officers who held the post of Chief of Naval Operations, and in 1928, Congress finally passed a law giving it to the CNO at the time, Admiral Charles Frederick Hughes (known as "Handlebars" because of his lush moustache). He moved into the house the following year, according to Cleere's account.

Vice presidents, though, had to find their own places to live. Most either resided in their own homes, or as Calvin Coolidge did during the Warren G. Harding administration, lived in hotels. Coolidge, who became president after Harding's death in 1923, may have been the first to advocate the notion of giving the vice president an official home, in keeping with the dignity of the position. "The great office should have a settled and permanent habitation and a place, irrespective of the financial ability of its temporary occupant," Coolidge wrote in his memoirs.

By the mid-1960s, though, the expense of outfitting vice presidential residences with adequate security and communications equipment prompted Congress to pass a bill authorizing construction of a new home for the vice president on a portion of the Naval Observatory grounds, at a cost of $750,000 (about $6 million in today's dollars). But as the cost of the Vietnam war escalated, then-vice president Hubert Humphrey asked that the project be delayed as "an example of prudent budget practices," and the new house was never built, according to this 2017 Indianapolis Star article.

VP residence
Vice President George H.W. Bush in the vice president's residence in 1983.
David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the government continued to spend a fortune outfitting vice presidential residences. After President Richard Nixon picked Gerald R. Ford to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president when Agnew resigned in 1973, construction workers descended upon Ford's home in Alexandria, Virginia, to make extensive modifications, including installation of bullet-resistant windows. Those retrofits were only needed for nine months, because Ford eventually replaced Nixon as president.

Eventually, as Cleere's book notes, Congress decided that what was, at the time, called the Admiral House presented another, cheaper alternative. In 1974, Congress passed legislation that took Number One Observatory Circle away from the CNO and made it the vice presidential residence. (The CNO was relocated to Tingey House, an 1804 Georgian-style mansion that stands in the Washington Navy Yard.)

But the transition didn't occur right away. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller never actually moved into Number One Observatory Circle, though he used it for official events. Walter Mondale, who moved into the mansion in 1977, was its first vice presidential occupant.

Over the years, various modifications have been made to the vice presidential residence. Dan Quayle, who served as vice president during the George H.W. Bush administration, added a swimming pool, according to The Hill. Karen Pence, the wife of Donald J. Trump's vice president Mike Pence, added a beehive as a reminder of bees' important role in agriculture, CNN reported in 2017.

After Kamala Harris was sworn in as vice president of the United States in January 2021, she and her husband Doug Emhoff didn't immediately move in. Instead, they temporarily took up residence in Blair House, the presidential guest residence at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue near the White House, so that repairs and maintenance could be completed.

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