President Trump rolled out his bowling initiative, his so-called “Charm Offensive,” at the White House last week, inviting in a slew of US representatives for a night of pizza, bowling, and D.C.-style arm-rasslin’ over his contentious health care reform plan.
A bowling alley, right there on White House grounds. Who knew?
If you are politically exhausted, not to worry, these next few hundred words will be devoted solely to some of the nonpolitical games and recreation through the years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
You’re safe here in the sports no-spin zone, unless we’re talking the gyrations of a bowling ball, of course.
Bowling started at the White House in 1947 when President Truman, a man whose preferred recreation was poker playing, signed off on a couple of lanes. They were located on the ground floor of the West Wing, and Give ’Em Hell Harry christened the space by knocking over seven pins with his First Roll on April 25, 1947. One of the pins was swept off by the Smithsonian Institution.
The White House Lanes, with gutters left and right, saw a lot of action when Truman was resident kingpin. There was a White House bowling league in 1950 and a national touring team, comprised of Secret Service agents, groundskeepers, switchboard operators, secretaries, and household staff. Have to wonder if such employees even have a chance talk to one another in 2017? And what the hell is a switchboard operator? Sounds like a political double agent.
The next man up, President Eisenhower, preferred dogleg fades to 7-10 splits, and in 1955 had the lanes moved across the street to the Old Executive Office Building (later named the Eisenhower Building). The vacated space, which later became the White House Situation Room, was initially used to house the day’s state-of-the-art mimeograph machines (elder reader reminder: inhaling the intoxicating scent of blue ink can be dangerous to your health).
Bowling as its exists today in the White House made a comeback in 1969, a collection of President Nixon’s friends (not to be confused with all the President’s men), ponying up to have a single lane built underground, below the driveway that leads to the North Portico. Dick and Pat Nixon were big bowlers, as were LBJ and wife Lady Bird. YouTube is full of clips showing a smiling, stiff, geeky Nixon in his happier days as Bowler-in-Chief.
FDR was on the watch when the first White House swimming pool, built indoors, was constructed at a cost of $22,000. The New York Daily News, operating in President Roosevelt’s home state, led the funding drive, encouraging readers to donate what they could to help provide soothing therapy for the polio-stricken president.
An Associated Press story of the day noted that 43 other newspapers joined the funding campaign, which drew thousands of checks, much of the money donated by schoolkids. FDR’s First Swim was on June 3, 1933, water temperature a therapeutic 88 degrees, and lasted 30 minutes, according to the AP. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was at his side.
Just days before the pool opened, the Globe’s M.E. Hennessy wrote in his “Round About” column that President John Quincy Adams also was a devoted swimmer during his days in office. Adams, wrote Hennessy, routinely arose before sunrise and walked to the nearby Potomac, doddering along in dressing gown and slippers.
“He would walk to a spot . . . disrobe,” wrote Hennessy, “. . . and dive into the stream in Nature’s own garment.”
There was a little more elbow room in the hustle and bustle of D.C. in the mid-1820s. A naked leader of the free world could find some space in a city of about 18,000.
Adams also was the first president to adorn the White House with a billiards table, a tradition maintained by most of his successors. According to an Edwin A. Miles story published in 1972 in New England Quarterly, Adams bought a used table from a local shopkeeper, had it lined with new felt, and bought new cues and balls.
The purchase backfired bigly on Adams. His foes, noted Miles, made political hay out of it, using it as “the keynote for the attacks upon” him in a brutal campaign of 1828 — in which he was defeated by Andrew Jackson. The pool table, by Miles’s eye, was used to show that Adams was extravagant in his use of public funds, aristocratic in taste, and that he “encouraged the vice of gambling.”
Gambling, in the White House? Who knew?
FDR’s swimming pool made it through LBJ’s years. JFK, with a notoriously bad back, was particularly fond of it. His father paid to have a magnificent mural, depicting sailboats on the Caribbean, drawn on three of its walls.
But in 1970, Nixon had the pool drained, covered it over, and turned the space into a press briefing room. Mothballed for nearly a half-century, the space today sometimes is referred to as the “ghost” pool of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
President Ford, who took over the office when Nixon resigned in disgrace, investigated the possibility of restoring the indoor pool. When cost estimates ran too high, an outdoor pool was built on the grounds at a cost (funded via donations) of some $300,000.
Teddy Roosevelt ordered the first tennis court on White House grounds in 1910. President Obama had the current court lined with basketball lines and removable hoops during his tenure.
Sadly, an afternoon of tennis on White House grounds in 1924 led directly to the death of Calvin Coolidge Jr., the then-president’s 16-year-old son. Playing without socks to line his sneakers, the young Coolidge developed a toe blister, leading to severe blood poisoning, and a week later to his death.
A putting green was installed by the golf-loving Eisenhower in 1954. It was a favorite of Obama, a man without his own private courses around the world. Squirrels were a problem for Ike. Truman, his predecessor, hand-fed the critters, and they had run of the back lawn by the time Ike ordered the putting green. They often burrowed acorns into the manicured turf, with Eisenhower sometimes kidding Secret Service employees to shoot them on sight.
Instead, the squirrels were routinely trapped and relocated, the day’s humane method of repeal and displace.