Building the President's House
By Jeanne Delgado
Photos by John Cosier Mien
These photos of the 3/4" scale diorama were taken at a Milwaukee shopping mall last year while "The Building of the President's House" was on tour. Just right of center, in the foreground, is the tableau of George Washington's arrival. He is honored with a 16-gun salute. His fine coach drawn by two white horses stands nearby as the architect, James Hoban, shows him the plans. The figures surrounding the platform are replicas of all the presidents.
George Washington did not sleep here. As a matter of fact, he is the only President who hasn't. But, though he never lived in the White House, George Washington did visit it many times while it was under construction.
Building of the President's house — it wasn't called "the White House" until much later — began in 1792. The cornerstone was laid October 13 of that year. On March 14, 1797, the recently retired President Washington made his last visit to the construction site. Unfortunately for us, the Washington press corps — and the camera didn't exist yet. And no sketches were made of the building progress.
We, however, have the Zweifels and their diorama. John Zweifel is the champion of the impossible dream. "If you can dream it, you can do it," he says fervently. John and Jan Zweifel are well known as the creators of the magnificent 1" scale White House replica which has toured all 50 states, Japan, and parts of Europe and has been featured here earlier. It was John's dream "to bring the White House to its owners, the American people." The story of the Zweifels' 15-year struggle to do so — and their ultimate success — is now the subject of a
A small crowd of onlookers has gathered to see the former president but only a few of the workers stop. The craftsmen — stone and brick masons, bricklayers, blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, painters, even cooks — still followed the old ways, some unchanged since the Middle Ages. Bricks were made and fired on site. Cut stone was numbered and stored in the fenced area. Most of the figures were made by Sharon Coyne, and several of them are motorized.
superb new book, The White House in Miniature. The Zweifels' incredible 3/4" scale diorama, "The Building of the President's House," though perhaps lesser known, is no less an incomparable gift. While making plans to celebrate the White House's 200th anniversary, Rex Scouten, the Curator of the White House who had worked so closely with the Zweifels on their miniature White House, had an idea. "It was several years before the actual anniversary," Mr. Scouten recalls, "perhaps 1989. I urged John to attempt a miniature of what the White House construction site must have looked like."
With the invaluable assistance of William Seale, White House historian, they scoured original contracts and bills for details. "We drew a lot of information, too, from the research Dr. Robert Kapsch did there on early construction techniques. He is Chief of the Historic American Buildings Survey," Rex explains "It's a division of the National Park Service .which documents historic buildings."
With the necessary background supplied, John and his staff designed and created the 16' x 18' diorama of the site as it must have looked on that March clay in 1797 when George Washington last visited. John is unceasing in his praise for and gratitude to Rex Scouten. "Without him, none of this would have been possible," he says.
John, who relies on a small dedicated staff and a large number of equally dedicated volunteers, is always quick to give others credit. "I'm not the finest craftsperson in the world," he admits readily. "I am in it for the fun, for art. And I have no secrets on how anything is done. Working together is a common goal. The whole thing is in working together. There are no I's here," he says in his Florida workshop. "It's all We."
The diorama was completed in 1992 and displayed in the lobby of the American Institute of Architects. Then, in what John calls one of the most exciting moments in his career, the Zweifels were asked to set it up in the East Room of the White House. There, on March 14, the same date as
The stone work on the White House is considered the finest in the U.S. Most of the stone carvers and masons came from Edinburgh, Scotland and worked from April to October every year. Workmen used wire saws dampened with water and sand to cut the stone. Once in place, the porous stone was whitewashed by painters using a mix of ground limestone, salt, ground rice, and glue.
Washington's last visit to the site, this incredible miniature delighted President and Mrs. Bush, and for the next four days welcomed visiting dignitaries and the American people to the White House's 200th anniversary celebration.
Everything in the Zweifels' White House in Miniature is as exact a replica as possible. It is constantly updated by John and his staff to reflect its current occupants. When they redecorate, so does John. But the diorama of the "Building of the President's House," for all its activity, is frozen in time capturing the moment for future generations — a moment when construction technology was about to cross a threshold, and the western world, already in political transformation, was about to enter the next century — through the doors of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue —and the magic of John Zweifel.
Today Rex Scouten has another idea. "I've been talking to John," he says, "about the possibility of having a record of some kind to accompany the diorama, a tape probably, to explain all the details, everything that is going on in the scene —what the workmen are doing and how they are doing it. John really wants to do it — someday. But it's a matter of financing .. ." As John Zweifel once told me, however, "There is no time limit on dreams."
This diorama and the White House in Miniature are now on display at the House of Presidents, 123 N. Highway 27, Clermont, Florida. The book The White House in Miniature by Gail Buckland can be ordered from NN Customer Sales 1-800-533-6644.