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The People's White House

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1993-01-19 Orlando Sentinel The Peolple's White House 001a WHR
1993-01-19 Orlando Sentinel The Peolple's White House 001b WHR

 

 

Detailed model gives public a look behind closed doors 

January 19, 1993   Orlando Sentinel

By Catherine Hinman            OBERTO GONZALEZ/SENTINEL OF THE SENTINEL STAFF 

John and Jan Zweifel look in on Jimmy Carter's Oval Office. White House offices will be on display at Central Florida Fair.

Bill Clinton saw John Zweifel's 60-foot-tong replica of the White House almost 14 years ago when the president-elect was still governor of Arkansas.

Looking at the model, Clinton told Zweifel, "I'm going to live in that house."

If Zweifel was surprised at that statement (and he concedes that Clinton in 1979 looked to him more like a boy than a governor), perhaps he shouldn't have been. The artist, who has made a living building exhibits in Orlando for 20 years, knows firsthand the power of a dream.

After more than 30 years in the making, Zweifel's miniature White House creation has become some-thing of a national treasure.

Last year during the celebration of the White House's 200th anniversary, the finely crafted model was exhibited for eight months at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

In Novermber, the replica, which faithfully reproduces more than 50 rooms and furnishings of the White House, was set up for the dedication of Ronald Reagan's Library in California. It is currently on display at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library in Boston.

More than 40 million people have seen it since it began touring the nation in 1976. The replica will be in Boston through October, but

  • White House in miniature
  • What: The White House replica.
  • Designers: John and Jan Zweifel.
  • Under construction: More than 30 years.
  • Size: 60 feet long, scale of 1 inch to 1 foot; more than 50 rooms, 1,000 pieces of furniture.
  • Details: Working TV sets the size of quarters, ticking clocks, ringing phones, chandeliers with light bulbs changed out with tweezers, handpainted portraits and wallpaper, petit-point carpets, hand-carved tables, chairs and beds in rosewood, mahogany and walnut, handblown goblets.

Please see MODEL, E-4

 

MODEL from E-1

 60-foot-long White House model is big enough to hold his dreams


Zweifel will showcase almost 20 separate White House rooms at the Central Florida Fair Feb. 26 to March 2. Those will include the oval offices of Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and Clinton.

It will be Zweifel's first public showing of the Clinton oval office. Though Clinton may not have had the time to change much from the Bush oval office, Socks the cat will be there. The tiny Socks has already been fashioned with clay and real cat hair and baked at 250 degrees in Zweifel's toaster oven.

Updating the White House rooms to reflect the Clintons' tastes will be a day-to-day affair in the corming months for Zweifel and his wife, Jan, who is his partner in this venture. Those exhibitions, national and local, are all the Zweifels had hoped for so many years ago when they proceeded with the White House project against a barrage of discouragement. "Everyone kept saying 'No, you can't do it.' " said Zweifel, 56. "That drove us to do it more." "We're idealists, not realists," he said.

All the tiny details

What converted the Zweifels' opponents? Exquisite and exacting detail. The furnishings and the rooms of the White House have been copied precisely using a 1-inch to 1-foot scale. The furniture is hand-carved in authentic materials such as rosewood and walnut. Carpets have been reproduced in petit point - that's an eye-numbing 80 stitches per inch - and draperies in silk.

No detail, not even the carpet cigar burns left by Nixon, escaped Zweifel.

When finally allowed into the non-public rooms of the White House, the couple even checked behind paintings, so that the wall-paper's unfaded detail could be re-created.

What's more, Zweifel is some-thing of a magician. In his replica, by virtue of "miles and miles" of hidden electrical wiring, flames flicker in the fireplace, smoke rises from the East Wing chimney, the clocks tick, the phones ring, the TV sets work, the lamps light up. The chandeliers and lamps glisten with tiny light bulbs, originally developed for surgical instruments. Zweifel uses tweezers to change them.

The Zweifels themselves, aided by their six children, crafted all the furniture in the house. Zweifel hand-carved wood pieces. Jan Zweifel hand-painted wallpapers, fabric designs and presidential portraits to scale.

But over the years, hundreds of other people from a network of artisans across the country have donated time and labor to the project. They have hand-blown tiny goblets, stitched petit point carpets, painted tiny portraits and underwritten the tours and travel.

"We didn't want this to be a Zweifel family project," Zweifel said. "We wanted this to be a gift to the people from the people."

'Everyday is Christmas'

Zweifel begin making models as a child in Wisconsin. He would go to the circus or another event and come back home and make models of cardboard and paper to share the experience with his invalid grandmother. He studied architecture, sculpture and art at the Art Institute of Chicago and in 1973 moved to Orlando, where he has built a successful exhibit and special events business called Creative Events.

At Zweifel's south Orlando workshop, where he says, "everyday is Christmas, everyday is the Fourth of July," he has created displays for Disney World, Universal Studios Florida, trade shows, retail stores, malls and private parties. His shop is a dream factory, he says, with thousands of props from which he can create as many as 300 themes ranging from the circus to the old West. If he doesn't have it, he can build it. The elaborate display window for Universal at the Orlando International Airport, which includes King Kong, Jaws and the Brooklyn Bridge, is his construction. At Universal's Kongfrontation, Zweifel dressed the New York set with clothes, props and memorabilia belonging to his own family, parents and grandparents.

The idea of the White House replica was born in 1956 when Zweifel toured the presidential residence. Like many others, he wondered what lay beyond the public rooms, but unlike others, he knew there was a way to provide the public access without violating security.

"The reason I chose the White House, it's the symbol of the country," he said. "The whole country is a miracle and the White House is a miracle. It's 200 years old and still standing."

Zweifel is a tall, talkative man who bubbles with enthusiasm for this patriotic undertaking. As he tells the story of the past 30 years, his words have trouble keeping pace with his thoughts. He has a childlike innocence about him. He wanted, he said, to share "the people's house" with the American people.

He is the kind of man who cries when the U.S. flag goes by and has been known to wear red, white and blue socks. "It's a wonderful way to pay back for the freedom of expression that I have and so many people don't have," he said of the model.

Access to the inside

The most difficult problem was not making the model, but getting the information necessary to do it properly. The Eisenhower administration refused to help, but in 1961, the Kennedys gave the Zweifels access to rooms the public had never seen before. The assassination cut their progress short, and through-out Johnson and Nixon's administrations, the Zweifels worked handicapped under tightened security. In the early '70s, Zweifel toured the White House so many times he's lost count. Because note-taking and lingering are forbidden on the tour, he would note details mentally, walk out writing them down and then proceed to take the tour again. He gauged measurements using his own 6-foot height.

From the tours and public photographs of rooms, he put together his first public display for the Central Florida Fair in February 1975. He had four rooms completed at the time, and the furnishings from uncompleted rooms. He sat with the exhibit, carving wood pieces of furniture and talking about his lofty goal. That spring, after literally sitting on a doorstep to the Executive Office Building until someone talked to him, he won recognition from the Ford administration. After seeing some of the Zweifels' handiwork, Ford gave the couple virtual run of the White House.

When the Fords were skiing in Vail, Colo., the Zweifels were allowed in the White House personal quarters with their tape measures and cameras.

"What John has done by doing this and taking tours around the country is allow a part of country to see and feel the White House in a way they couldn't have otherwise," said White House curator Rex Scouten, reached by phone in Washington. "John has' been a great representative of the White House. I've certainly gotten thousands of letters complimenting him. 
We didn't want this to be a Zweifel family project. We wanted this to be a gift to the people from the people.

"More than 1.2 million people tour the White House annually but that's only a fraction of the U.S. citizenry. In addition, the public tour shows just five rooms of the 123-room White House. In the Zweifels' replica, visitors can see even into the president and first lady's private quarters, and Zweifel continues to add more rooms to the model.

Scouten has worked with the Zweifels for 25 years now, providing information and details as he can on the rooms of the White House. He was wary of Zweifel's proposal in the beginning, skeptical that Zweifel could do it in the first place, and that he would build the replica without expecting personal profits. But Zweifel, who has invested roughly $1 million in materials and transportation for the White House exhibit, never made a dime off his model.

"He's a rare and dedicated person," Scouten said.

As presidents come and go now, Zweifel's creation becomes living history. When a new administration redecorates, so do the Zweifels. It usually takes about a year before a new president and his family have made all the changes they are going to make.

"We will never want for work," said Jan.

The Zweifels' goal is to have their replica still sparkling and up-to-date for the country's tricentennial in the next century. The Zweifels' six children, all but one of whom still live in Central Florida, have committed to carrying forward their parents' work. The White House replica is not Zweifel's most elaborate creation, nor the biggest, but it is, he said, the most successful by far and perhaps the most satisfying.

"Every artist's dream," Zweifel said, "is to create something that will live longer than he will."

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