The Truman Little White House Key West – A History & Travel Guide

The Truman Little White House Key West – A History & Travel Guide

The Little White House in Key West, Florida is a historic site that served as a winter White House for President Harry S. Truman for 175 days during 11 visits. Located at 111 Front Street, this unassuming coastal cottage was originally built in 1890 as quarters for command staff of the naval station. With its wraparound porch, shuttered windows, and all-white exterior, the Little White House exudes tropical charm.

History As early as 1820, the location where the Little White House now stands was occupied by military warehouses. After a hurricane destroyed most of Key West in 1846, the Navy purchased the land and built the Porter House on the site as living quarters for naval commanders. This two-story house was later moved in 1890 to make way for the construction of the building that is now known as the Little White House. From 1890 to 1912, the Little White House functioned as quarters for flag officers of the Key West Naval Station.

In 1912, former President William Howard Taft designate the house as a summer White House during his administration. Taft spent nearly three emotionally-trying months at what he called the “Summer White House,” as he grieved the recent death of his close aide, Archibald Butt, in the Titanic disaster. Taft was the first president to use the house, but not the last. Years later, it was Taft’s former aide, Harry S. Truman, who put the Little White House into the spotlight.

Truman first came to the Little White House in 1946 when it was still an active naval station. In November of that year, Truman arrived amidst the pressures of his first months as president following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Accompanying him was his wife Bess, daughter Margaret, staff, and Secret Service agents. Truman relished the respite Key West provided from the cold winters and hectic political climate of Washington D.C. Over the next eight years, Truman escaped to the Little White House for 175 days during 11 working vacations. It was here that he discussed critical Cold War foreign policies, drafted speeches, and held official meetings with advisors, world leaders, and cabinet members.

Several historical events unfolded within the walls of the Little White House during Truman’s stays. In March of 1949, Truman made the critical decision to accelerate development of the hydrogen bomb while contemplating the Soviet’s recent atomic weapon test. The following year in 1950, Truman gathered his advisors at the Little White House to formulate a policy response after learning the Soviets were aiding communist North Korea in their invasion of South Korea. His administration’s discussions evolved into the Korean War effort. During another stay in 1952, Truman famously seized control of steel mills across the country to avoid strikes during the Korean War, before the Supreme Court later ruled his actions unconstitutional.

The legacy of Truman’s presidency forever linked the Little White House to a critical era in American history. In fact, the sites Truman visited during his vacations comprise the Truman Heritage Trail, inaugurated in 1982. While Truman was the last president to stay in the Little White House, several first families have since toured the home, including the Carters, Nixons, Fords, Reagans, Clintons and Obamas over the last few decades. Jimmy Carter was the last president to visit in 1978. In 2012, the Little White House was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

What to See and Do Today

The Little White House functions as a public museum that transports visitors back in time. Managed by the Harry S. Truman Little White House Foundation, most of the rooms have been restored to their 1950s appearance filled with Truman family furnishings. Guests can explore the ground floor rooms by guided tour, examining the living room, dining room, kitchen, and porch.

The living room of the Little White House remains set up for one of Truman’s poker games with close friends including his Appointment Secretary Matt Connelly. Here Truman passed many evenings smoking cigars, playing poker, sipping bourbon, and relaxing to the new-fangled hi-fi system. Across the hall lies the dining room with its big mahogany table and chandelier where the Trumans hosted small formal dinners and afternoon teas.

Adjacent to the dining room rests a compact but functional kitchen. Beyond milk, eggs, and bread, most food was brought down from Washington by the president’s mess. Still, Bess Truman herself enjoyed showing off her baking skills to Key West locals who were occasionally invited in for a dessert tasting.

The wraparound porch spanning three sides of the Little White House allowed the Trumans a cool spot to enjoy ocean breezes. Hammocks, rocking chairs, card tables and even Harry Truman’s worn leather recliner furnished their outdoor respite. It was on the Little White House porch that Truman first learned Russia had exploded an atomic bomb in 1949, sparking a tense Cold War era.

While the ground floor rooms capture Truman’s day-to-day life, a self-guided exploration of the top floor offers an intimate glimpse at the president’s private quarters. A staircase lined with historic black and white photographs curves up to reveal Truman’s 1940s-style bathroom, small bedroom, and an even smaller bedroom used by his daughter Margaret. Oddly enough, Bess Truman often chose to sleep in a pull down bed in Margaret’s room rather than sharing a bed with her husband like most couples of that era.

Beyond the house itself, a visitor center features exhibits about the Little White House, Harry Truman’s presidency, and 1940s Key West history. A short film provides background on the house and Truman’s winter White House stays. Guided tours depart daily from the visitor center and run about 45 minutes. For those wanting to dig deeper, personalized tours offer access to Truman’s private quarters and other areas not included on the regular tours.

Plan to spend 1-2 hours enjoying all the Little White House has to offer. Admission prices vary depending on the level of tour you would like or if you choose to add on any additional historical tours around the island. Please check their website for up to date information.

Nearby Sites

Make a full day discovering U.S. president-related attractions in Key West linked to Harry Truman by visiting these neighboring sites:

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park. Tour the 19th century fort where Truman played poker with local friends at the officer’s club. Beautiful beaches provide opportunities for snorkeling and picnicking.

Key West Lighthouse Museum: Climb the 88 spiral steps to the top of this 1847 lighthouse for expansive views spanning the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Interactive exhibits detail the history of Key West’s lighthouses.

Where to Stay

The Little White House sits just a few blocks from Key West’s Historic Seaport. Lodging options range from household name hotels and resorts to cozy inns and intimate guesthouses. Here are some top-rated picks:

The Marker Waterfront Resort – Historic boutique hotel near Mallory Square offering condo-style units with full kitchens plus a pool, restaurant, and tropical garden.

Paradise Inn – Charming adult-only guesthouse known for its warm hospitality, afternoon wine and cheese receptions, and complimentary breakfast.

Orchid Key Inn – Luxurious 24-hour staffed inn with elegant rooms, nightly wine hour, freshwater pool, and free cruiser bikes to explore Key West.

Getting There

The island of Key West sits at the southernmost tip of Florida, 130 miles southwest from Miami. Tourists reach the island either by air or by a scenic Overseas Highway drive down through the Florida Keys island chain. Options include:

Plane: Fly into Key West International Airport (EYW) serviced by several major domestic airlines with non-stop routes from over a dozen U.S. cities. Rent a car or take a shuttle, taxi or Uber to downtown Key West, just 3 miles away.

Car: Embark on a stimulating road trip along the 113-mile Overseas Highway from Miami to Key West, crossing 42 bridges spanning emerald waters. Expect a 3 to 4 hour drive. Secure parking by either your hotel or public garages scattered around downtown.

That covers the history, main attractions, nearby sites, places to stay, and how to reach the Little White House in Key West, Florida – a haven for respite and reflection used by U.S. presidents. From its naval warehouse origins to hosting President Truman’s working vacations to today’s museum tours, the Little White House offers an intimate perspective into a president’s private life during critical moments in history.

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