How Karen and Mike Pence — and their pets — have put their personal stamp on the vice presidential residence
WASHINGTON — A painting of pink peonies — Indiana’s state flower — enlivens the sunroom in the vice president’s residence.
The blue and gold seats of the dining room chairs, coincidentally reflecting the colors of the Indiana state flag and brought into the home by former Second Lady Marilyn Quayle, inspired fellow Hoosier Karen Pence’s decorating scheme for the formal reception areas.
And if the new basketball court where Mike Pence shoots hoops after work isn’t enough of a sign of the current residents’ roots, there’s the logo from the movie “Hoosiers” emblazoned on the concrete.
In the year since the Pences moved in to One Observatory Circle, they’ve put their native stamp on the residence. But what really makes it a Pence home, said Second Lady Karen Pence, are their pets.
“We’re just pet people,” Pence said in an interview as their cat, Hazel, prowled around the sunroom of the Queen Anne-style house located on the grounds of the Naval Observatory. “We’ll always have some kind of pet.”
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Their Australian shepherd Harley that Karen gave her husband for Father’s Day last year likes to play guard on the basketball court when he’s not chasing a Frisbee.
Rabbit Marlon Bundo has a book coming out in March.
The book, written by Pence’s oldest daughter, Charlotte, with illustrations by Karen Pence that she painted in the private living room on the second floor, will be a natural addition to the home’s library. The space was created by Joan Mondale to showcase publications by vice presidents. A first edition book written by Thomas Jefferson when he was vice president — a manual on rules for the Senate, over which the vice president technically presides — has a prominent place on the library’s fireplace mantle. The shelves flanking the fireplace display not just books, but also some of Joan Mondale’s pottery and a photo of the Pences dining with Joe and Jill Biden at the residence during the transition.
Now that the Pences are doing the hosting, they gravitate to the coziness of the library over the much larger living room when having a small group over for a meeting or Bible study.
“This room we use a lot,” Pence said.
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She didn’t change much about Jill Biden’s layout of the library – with its leather couch and cushy arm chairs grouped around the fireplace. She also kept the drapes and green-striped wallpaper.
Other rooms needed more attention. Unlike at the White House, the areas of the vice presidential residence used for entertaining, can get just as much revamping as the private living quarters when administrations change. Except for some antiques and notable pieces — such as the mahogany dining table contributed by Nelson Rockefeller — much of the furniture and art is often on loan or owned by the departing family. Or, it needs to be replaced after heavy entertaining. (The Pences hosted more than 70 events in their first year.)
A foundation set up by the Quayles pays for new furniture and other improvements to the residence, originally built in 1893 and formally opened as the official residence for vice presidents in 1975. Families have the option of purchasing the furniture from the foundation to take with them when they leave.
The Pences brought little of their own furniture to Washington. With much of it more than 30 years old, they gave most away to aides, Goodwill or homeless shelters before the move.
As an artist, Pence sought inspiration in color when working with a decorator to choose new wall colors, drapes, rugs and some furniture for the foyer, dining and living rooms. The blue and gold upholstery on the wooden inlaid dining room chairs immediately caught her eye.
“I said, `Let’s start with these and go from there,’” Pence said. (When she told Marilyn Quayle about her inspiration, Quayle was delighted that the chairs are still in use.)
In addition to the chairs, the Pences also have the Quayles to thank for another favorite feature of the home — the heated swimming pool. Until it was covered for the winter in November, the Pences would swim almost every day.
“It’s like, okay, we can’t not be in shape because we have a pool right here,” Pence said. “We’ve got to go do those laps.”
Her own plans for improvements to the property include updating the pool house in part to make it useable as a guest house for visitors who might struggle with the stairs of the residence.
She’s already added a beehive to the grounds to highlight the need to increase the nation’s bee population.
The gardener has planted catnip for Hazel.
The half basketball court was installed primarily to have a level platform to help with catering outdoor events. But when it was done, the Pences wheeled onto it the portable basketball hoop that had been in the driveway. They also had the logo from the vice president’s favorite sports movie — the story of an underdog Indiana basketball team — applied to what’s now called the “Hoosier court.” The logo, however, isn’t permanent, Pence notes.
“The next guy probably isn’t going to want that,” she said with a laugh. “Unless he’s from Indiana.”
One contribution from Indiana that will remain are porcelain dessert plates being decorated by the Indiana chapter of the World Organization of China Painters that will be delivered in spring. Each plate will be painted with every state’s signature flower.
Indiana’s state flower, the peony, is already showcased in a painting on loan from Indiana artist Douglas David.
“You go to your roots,” Pence said of her choice of painting, which shares space in the residence with American landscapes on loan from the Smithsonian from Edward Mitchell Bannister, Ben Foster and other artists.
The Pence’s roots are also on display on the living room’s grand piano. Framed photographs capture past moments with previous vice presidential families, including Pence’s first visit to the house in 1988. She was among the spouses of that year’s crop of congressional candidates invited to meet with Barbara Bush. (The home’s previous famous pet – Millie – walked down the stairs as Bush was talking, and “we all just swooned,” Pence remembers. “She was like, `Ladies, she’s just a dog.’ But Millie was so famous.”)
The Pences lost that 1988 race, and “I certainly didn’t think I’d ever be back in this house after that,” she said.
But Mike Pence would go on to win six terms in Congress and serve as governor, giving the family their first experience in a public residence. The vice president’s home is in some ways more private than the governor’s residence was on Indianapolis’ Meridian Street, Karen Pence said, because it sits amid the 72 woodsy acres of the Naval Observatory grounds, barely visible from the street. But it’s less private because the staff don’t leave at the end of the work day.
“On the weekends, the (governor’s) house was completely ours,” Pence said. “There are people here all the time.”
Even while sitting on the house’s wrap-around veranda — another favorite spot, where the Pences like to eat dinner in nice weather or just sit to catch up at the end of the day — they can’t help but notice the Secret Service officers rotating every 15 minutes.
“It’s like, `Hi guys,’ and then you go back to your conversation,” she said.
The adjustment to the increased security, Pence said, has been tough. As Indiana’s first lady, she would sometimes tell her security detail, “I just need to drive today.” And they would follow behind, instead of chauffeuring her. Now, that’s out of the question.
Still, Pence said says she’s able to make regular visits to Target, the post office and the grocery store.
“People don’t recognize me,” she said. “Or, if they do, they leave me alone.”
But the grocery store? When the residence comes with a staff?
Well, Pence explained, younger daughter Audrey is home from college and is quite a cook.
“She said, `Come on, mom. Let’s go to the grocery,’” Pence said.
Plus, the Naval enlisted aides who staff the home care for the humans, not the animals.
“I get all the pet food and pet supplies,” she explained.
The Pences, unlike recent vice presidents, don’t have a private home to go to when they’re not in the official residence.
But although Karen Pence has sought to keep the house as warm and inviting to others as she experienced it when a visitor, she said she still doesn’t feel like she’s really home when she walks through the door.
“It’s very homey and the staff is amazing. But it’s a short time, so I don’t know if you really put your roots down when you know you’re not going to live here forever,” she said. “Home will always be Indiana.”
Contact Maureen Groppe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @mgroppe.