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2nd Oval Office Readied in White House Rehab Project

2nd Oval Office Readied in White House Rehab Project

By Alexis Simendinger - February 1, 2013

This summer there will be two Oval Offices in the White House complex, and it won’t be a case of double vision.

In preparation for a major, two-year renovation of the West Wing, the government is undertaking extensive work to complete a new executive office for President Obama at the south end of the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building, RCP has learned.

The president’s facsimile Oval Office, created as a nearly identical replica of the most famous ovoid room in the world, is slated to be ready for occupancy by August if Obama is ready to move and if design challenges are resolved. The build-out of the new “West Wing quarters” inside the Eisenhower building has begun, but unforeseen construction hurdles may alter plans for the eventual placement of the new office inside the EEOB, according to several knowledgeable sources.

The timing of Obama’s move to a substitute executive suite is in part dependent on the president’s readiness to begin working in the temporary quarters for what could be as long as two years, sources told RCP. The West Wing phase of a larger, $376 million project begun in September 2010 was put on pause through last year’s election, although funding and contracts were ready, the sources said. If Mitt Romney had won in November, Obama would have handed decisions about whether and how to proceed with the rehab project to his successor, they added.

Since the Oval Office was added to the White House in 1909 (during the Taft administration), decades of repairs, redecoration and technological add-ons have been layered atop an antique foundation -- meaning that other presidents have been inconvenienced in this fashion.

Herbert Hoover, for example, had to make significant repairs after an electrical fire in 1929, and relocated for a brief time across the street to the secretary of the Navy’s office. Sources described how Obama’s West Wing rehab will tackle a down-to-the-studs overhaul of America’s iconic seat of power.

Though Obama won’t be the first modern president to work in an executive suite nearby, he has described the Oval Office as a “surprisingly comfortable” place in which to get real work done, and he lauds his 70-yard walk from home to office as one of the perks of his position.

President Nixon treated the Oval Office as a ceremonial suite, choosing to do most of his writing, thinking and phone-calling (and some tape-recording) in Room 180 of what was then called the Old Executive Office Building. His office was located at the top of building’s steps, closest to the West Wing. President Johnson, out of respect for his assassinated predecessor, John F. Kennedy, also used the Oval Office only as a formal setting with visitors and continued to do most of his work in his vice presidential suite located in Room 274 of the OEOB.

This week, fresh lumber and rebar are visible as walls rise out of the ground at 17th and State streets NW, at the southwest corner of the executive office building that began as home to the U.S. War Department in 1888. The small construction site, which is shrouded from view by tall chain-link fences and forest-green tarps, signals one of the preparatory phases for the eventual West Wing overhaul, according to sources familiar with the plans.

Workers are building what will become a temporary blast-proof, secure VIP visitors’ entrance to the granite EEOB behemoth, which already houses most of what is known as the Executive Office of the President. The new, secure gate -- slated to be operable by June -- is intended to become an entryway for VIP guests, akin to the existing West Wing lobby, sources told RCP.

Because the Oval Office is an internationally renowned symbol of American power -- and because considerable disruption is involved in transitioning out of the West Wing -- the precise timing of the relocation and West Wing interior demolition is somewhat up in the air. “We have eight to 10 months to get ready,” one source said.

The president’s senior advisers, now squeezed into the coveted but cramped West Wing quarters, are expected to move with Obama across a narrow drive to the Eisenhower building.

The West Wing renovation is the latest phase of a significant project that resulted last year in the completion of a secret bunker-like facility deep underneath the White House driveway. The work also included construction under West Executive Drive, the private lane between the two buildings in the White House complex. The drive is ostensibly used as a VIP entrance for vehicles and as a parking lot.

Although officials described the excavation project completed last year in front of the West Wing lobby as an upgrade of air conditioning, plumbing and basic “infrastructure,” reporters chronicled the mysterious cavalcade of heavy trucks -- their commercial identifiers covered over -- as they deposited steel beams, huge pipes, concrete, electrical equipment and even a hot water heater into the cavernous hole.

Although the White House and General Services Administration officials responsible for the project’s multiple phases have not publicly discussed its details, many observers have made educated guesses that the deep pit, now covered over by asphalt and grass, encloses a security structure butted against the West Wing.

The President’s Emergency Operations Center, used by Vice President Cheney and key officials on Sept. 11, 2001, is located at the far side of the 18-acre complex beneath the East Wing and accessed through a maze of hallways, tunnels and multiple vault-like doors.

The White House Situation Room, located on the lower level at the south side of the West Wing, was renovated in 2006 as a high-tech information fusion center under President Bush. In 2011, Obama and his national security team used the high-tech facility to watch U.S. forces as they killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. (The so-called “Sit Room” is not part of the administration’s planned upgrades.)

The West Wing overhaul plan was first reported by Carol Ross Joynt in Washingtonian magazine a year ago, although a government spokesman at the time denied that the president would be relocated after the inauguration.

Since Joynt’s online report, RCP learned that the stand-in “Oval Office,” replicated in shape and Obama beige-ness, is being readied for occupancy within months. And a source pointed RCP to the construction of the new visitors’ entrance on 17th Street as evidence that an EEOB relocation project was under way in phases.

RCP also learned that the White House press corps and Obama press staff, currently working just steps from the Oval Office, would be impacted when construction crews and materials arrive. Obama’s press office staff will have to relocate, a source said.

The White House briefing room, named for former Press Secretary James S. Brady, as well as journalists’ work spaces next to the briefing room, were remodeled in 2007 during a project that required journalists to temporarily set up shop across Pennsylvania Avenue at a government center on Jackson Place.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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