Harry Truman slept in a double bed in Key West in a room that, by day, was warmed by the subtropical sun. Close to his bed was the simple desk where he wrote daily letters to his wife Bess. Downstairs, on a sun porch overlooking a broad sweep of lawn, stood his discreetly-covered poker table.
Harry Truman could relax in Key West. From 1946 to 1952 he spent 11 working vacations on the island — taking brisk morning walks, playing poker, swimming and fishing, and making some of the most important decisions of his presidency.
Truman first visited Key West when his doctor ordered rest to fight a bad cold. Entranced by the island, he quickly adopted the one-time commandant’s quarters on the Key West naval station as his “little White House.”
Today, that West Indian structure is a noteworthy American historic site known as the Harry S. Truman Little White House Museum.
Florida’s only presidential museum, it’s located on the former Navy base in an enclave now called Truman Annex. There, visitors can tour airy, comfortable rooms that look much as they did in Harry’s day, listening to guides tell tales of his presidency and Key West sojourns.
The house’s easygoing atmosphere offers no hint of the momentous issues decided there. According to Bob Wolz, the museum’s executive director, it’s believed that Truman decided to adopt the Marshall Plan to aid postwar Europe while he was in Key West — as well as deciding to relieve General Douglas MacArthur of his command and to forego running for reelection.
Bob should know. Seemingly born to nurture and guide the Little White House, he’s a passionate historian and an expert on all things Truman. He even co-wrote a book about Harry’s Key West years.
The end of those years certainly didn’t mark the end of the Little White House’s role in politics. Since then, the house has hosted former presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter and Clinton — and even the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan during a historic four-day peace conference.
Last May, a rededication ceremony commemorated a seven-year, nearly million-dollar research-intensive restoration that brought even greater historical authenticity to Harry’s one-time headquarters.
For example, all the interior walls were repainted to match the 1949 colors revealed by a detailed paint analysis, and the foyer’s original wallpaper was recreated and hung. The living room draperies and upholstery were replaced with fabric that matched the original, located after an Internet search.
The restoration team even found (and had reproduced) 18 oil paintings and prints that were displayed in the 1949 Little White House. Outside, the Truman gardens were replicated based on site plans and their appearance in vintage photographs.
Even small details weren’t overlooked. Volunteers searched industriously until they found and obtained duplicates of the lamps that graced Harry and Bess Truman’s bedside tables — and flower arrangements were recreated from photographs showing the rooms in the late 1940s.
Each May, the museum co-hosts a Key West symposium that examines Truman’s legacy.
During the opening reception on the grounds, attendees can hear nationally recognized speakers and meet VIPs like former Truman aide Ken Hechler, who later became West Virginia’s secretary of state. In past years, many reception guests have chatted with the late president’s grandson Clifton Truman Daniel.
Not surprisingly, he seems right at home in the Little White House his grandfather loved.