“Phil, where are you?” demanded my beloved on the phone.
“In the car, heading over to see Canyon”.
“Well turn around and go home. We’re going to a wedding!”
“The White House”!
The White House is probably one of the most recognized buildings in the world. Unfortunately, it is rather mired in controversy at the moment. However, this is not the place to discuss the various rights or wrongs of politics here. This website is apolitical OK. But back in 2016, in the waning days of the Obama administration before the presidential elections really got going, we got the chance to visit it whilst attending Diane’s cousin’s wedding. It wasn’t a conventional wedding, but was rather fun all the same.
All of this was possible because by chance, Diane’s cousin and his fiancée had discovered that in Washington DC, you can officiate at your own wedding. I.e. you can marry yourself. And you can do it anywhere in the District of Columbia. All you need was a marriage license and a license to officiate and you are good to go. So after obtaining these, the plan here was to get a group together, go visit the White House, which is a national park site and thus open to visitors, find a quiet spot somewhere and have a quick ceremony. No major organization, no negotiations with the custodians, just get it done. And essentially, that is what happened. The only slight glitch was that until that morning, Diane’s cousin had forgotten to tell us that we were included in the plan!
So I hurried home, and soon after Diane got back as well. A quick wash, brushup and change of clothes and we headed off to DC to join the rest of the group. Visits to the White House are scheduled in advance and with me being a foreigner, I made sure that I had plenty of ID with me so that I could get in. (Diane’s cousin had obviously put us on the schedule to attend, but had forgotten to tell us we were going!) Obviously there are security measures to pass through, but these were not actually that draconian and once clear of that, you are essentially free to wander about the open parts of the house at will.
Despite its prominent and active political nature (it IS the Presidents official home after all), you’re free to explore at your own pace. OK, there are a bunch of Secret Service personnel on duty, one in each room, but they were very friendly and courteous.
After entering through the East Wing, you pass through the basement and can visit various rooms, including the Library, China Room, etc. These are the rooms that Nixon used to haunt during the last days of his Presidency. Although some of the rooms were roped off to casual visitors, it should be remembered that it is a working house and that after all the visitors have left, the barriers come down and people use these rooms for relaxation and visiting. Indeed, as one of the last groups to enter that day, the custodians were following through taking down the rope barriers, ready for a function that night.
One of the suprising things about the main mansion of the White House is just how small it is. As Mansions go, it isn’t that big, though it is part of a complex that includes the west and east wings, which aren’t that visible from the street. From the north (i.e. looking from Pennsylvannia Ave), it really looks quite small, though it looks a bit more imposing from the South Lawn. This is also apparent from inside – the rooms are not that big, even the East State room which is the one where the President gives all his press conferences and holds State functions, etc. And the hallway down which he walks when going to meet the press (that is seen in every interview given) is not that big either (it looks huge on TV). Indeed, everything looks so much bigger than reality on TV and in the movies!
It should be noted that the interior of the White House is not the original. The building was heavily rebuilt in the early 1950’s during the Truman administration, as it was falling down. During the work, the interiors (including the walls) were carefully dismantled and the building stripped back to its outer walls, before new internal framing was installed and the interior rooms reconstructed largely using the original materials. During this time the basement was extended and there is now a deep underground complex that visitors cannot visit.
Each room has a Secret service agent in it. Mostly, these are as you would expect from the movies, super-polite, built like an outhouse, shades, suit, tie and earpiece. I’m sure they had other items of equipment on hand that we couldn’t see. What I wasn’t expecting was that they were REALLY knowledgable about the history and artifacts of each room. This was genuine knowledge, not reading from a script. Indeed, it was like talking to an expert on “Antiques Roadshow”, as it was obvious that they really knew their stuff. I remarked on this to one of the agents that I was having trouble reconciling this with the public perception of Secret Service agents, i.e. jumping out of helicopters with guns blazing and take one for the President. “Oh yes” he replied. “We do that too!”
Anyhow, as we all wandered through the east room, there was some discussion amongst our party about where to try and hold the ceremony. This caught the eye of the agent on duty, who asked Diane if there had just been a proposal? “No” she said, “they were hoping to hold a small wedding ceremony somewhere in the building”. “Oh” he replied, “I wish we’d known ahead of time! We could have really set something up for you! How about doing it here”? And with that, he proceeded to take down the barriers, escorted the group into the East Room for the ceremony. After a brief debate about where to do the deed, it was decided to hold it in front of the fireplace. And so that is where it occurred, in full view of all other visitors at the time.
Indeed, a number of other agents came to watch the proceedings! It only took a few minutes and then it was over and time to move on, especially as the white House staff were eager to start preparing the East Room for a function that night. I wonder if the participants in that event knew that a wedding had occurred there just a few hours earlier? The generosity and willingness of the Secret service agents to accommodate the couple’s wishes was unexpected and extremely generous. Their enthusiastic response helped make the day a memorable occasion and the agents on duty that day were a credit to their service.
And so we were able to pull it off. We got to visit the White House and pulled off a surprise wedding. After we had finished the tour, we took several pictures out in front of the north portico (again courtesy of the Secret Service) and then headed home to Chris and Gina’s new house for a barbeque and party. Oh, and yes, their marriage certificate really does say 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington DC as their marriage location. Not too many people can say that they have that!