White House prepares for 20 years of redecorating

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The Independent Online
THE GLISTENING mansion that occupies possibly the most famous address in the world is about to go through that most American of experiences, a makeover.

Number 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC - the White House - will undergo its most comprehensive overhaul since the city of Washington was laid out in 1791. Assuming the plans receive the approval of Congress and the public, who will have their chance to comment, the project will take 20 years to complete.

Phase one, which focuses on clearing the clutter from inside and outside the building, may be finished by the time the next occupant, be it Al Gore, George Bush Jnr or someone different, takes up residence in 2001. The first priority - creating a large underground car park to the south of the White House - could make the secret entrances and exits, made known through the confessions of Monica Lewinsky, a thing of the past.

Ms Lewinsky, instead of walking from the open car park, to be ushered in through a non-visitor and non-staff entrance, would be able to park her car underground and make her way through monitored passages into the building.

The plan is for the President and his family to have a large "recreation area" to function as a "den, gym and entertainment space".

With relatively modest living quarters concentrated in one wing of the building, Mr Clinton had little choice but the corridor off the Oval Office for his assignations with Monica.

Clearing the area of cars is also intended to offer visitors a freer vista of the White House's impressive southern aspect.

Another priority is to provide space for all the paraphernalia of banquets and other state occasions. The Park Service, which manages the White House and grounds and has overseen the remodelling plan, says: "Closets, corridors and driveways overflow with furniture and equipment, as though the staff were having a sale."

As now, tourists will have to gather at a visitor centre, a short distance from the White House, if they want to tour the building; they could, however, be transported underground on a moving pavement.

Television pictures of the White House Press briefing room give the impression of a dignified space appropriate to the political centre of the western hemisphere. Turn the cameras the other way, and the reality is different: it is a crowded mess as there is simply no room for anyone to put everything. The new plans call for a spanking new media centre to be built underground.

What will not come is the end of the much-resented closure of Pennsylvania Avenue, to the north of the White House, a thoroughfare as much part of Washington as the National Mall and Independence Avenue. Blocked, and clumsily barricaded in 1995, after a gunman took a pot shot that landed uncomfortably close to the presidential offices, any reopening must be approved on security grounds, and that prospect seems remote.