Floridiana: Get to Know a Presidential Escape
Why Truman and several other U.S. presidents found solace in a simple Key West home.
Nearly everybody hated Harry Truman in the fall of ’46. He was fighting with labor unions, accused of neglecting millions of starving Europeans and had dropped two nukes on Japan. “Give ’em hell Harry” was on the brink of unraveling.
“Truman had worn himself to a frazzle,” says historian Bob Wolz. “He needed a break.” So when Truman’s doctor prescribed a vacation, Adm. Chester Nimitz told the president about a place he knew.
Located on a submarine base in Key West, the home, known as Quarters A, was the spartan residence of the station’s commanders. Behind the rows of shutter windows and peeling white paint, Truman found some reprieve in the waterfront home. He went fishing in the mornings, worked during the day and played poker all night.
Gradually, what started as a vacation turned into a habit. Truman returned to the house 11 times, with his visits amounting to 175 days of his presidency. There, he wrote his State of the Union addresses and entertained 100 guests after his reelection in 1948. The unassuming house by the sea became Truman’s Little White House. Still, the retreat was neither lavish nor ornate. His wife dismissed it as nothing more than a fish camp. Years later, the place hosted Presidents Taft, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and Clinton.
Since the building reopened as a museum in 1991, the staff has worked to return it to the charmingly understated look of Truman’s days. Wolz, the executive director emeritus, says that’s the allure. “I walk in and I can understand Truman the human. He was the same as us,” Wolz says. “It’s a trip inside the mind of a man who didn’t want pretension.”
Most people who visit the museum are searching for the same thing Truman was: respite from troubles back home. Luckily for them, the humble house still stands as an escape for the weary.