Introduction to Every Leader
Being There: Encountering America's Presidents
33rd President of the United States, 1945-1953
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Little White House
Harry S Truman Little White House

President Truman working at his desk
President Truman working at his desk
in the Little White House living room.
U.S. Navy
Harry S Truman Library

President Harry S Truman began using this former naval officer residence in November 1946 as his winter White House. This Key West retreat gave Truman a restorative atmosphere to deal with the tumultuous events of the time, from the first use of nuclear weapons, post-World War II reconstruction, and the beginning of the Cold War. President Truman spent 11 working vacations here frequently meeting with high-ranking officials to discuss significant legislation such as the Marshall Plan and his fifth Civil Rights Executive Order. He continued to visit after his presidency ended in 1953.  To date, six American presidents have used it as the functioning White House of America and as a retreat and summit meeting location. William Howard Taft, the first president to visit this site, stopped here in December 1912 on his way to inspect construction of the Panama Canal.

Built by the United States Navy in 1890 as a two-family residence with a double façade emphasized by two prominent cross gables, the long narrow building known as Quarters A and B housed the commandant and paymaster. It features elements of late Victorian and West Indian architecture. The north, west and south sides feature louvers that enclose spacious wrap around porches.  The house was originally constructed on the waterfront. The land in front of the house was filled in with the 1909 dredging of the harbor to accommodate larger naval ships.   Much of the original 1890 construction remains. In 1911, the duplex was converted into a single 8700 square foot dwelling. In 1949, the Bureau of Yards and Docks added ten feet to the length of the house and enlarged bedrooms on the second floor for use by President Harry S Truman.

Key West’s strategic location has a long military history. The naval station served as command headquarters during the Spanish American War. Scientist Edward Hayden was base commander from 1912 to 1915 while doing hurricane research. As the headquarters of the Seventh Naval District it featured one of the first naval air stations and early submarine base and surface craft. Inventor Thomas Edison lived in the house for six months in 1918 and invented 41 new weapons for the war effort while he was here.  During World War II, the Key West Naval Station was heavily involved in protecting Allied shipping in the Straits of Florida. A number of Allied ships and German U-boats sank during combat off Key West. Throughout the Cold War, it served as headquarters of the East Coast Anti Submarine Warfare School.

Bess & Margaret Truman's bedroom
Bess & Margaret Truman's bedroom
Harry S Truman Little White House

President Harry S Truman’s first 19 months in office were grueling leaving him physically exhausted. When Truman suffered from a lingering cold, his doctor, Wallace Graham, ordered a warm vacation. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz recommended Quarters A in Key West as a secure, warm retreat.  Truman arrived in November 1946 for a week of relaxation. He fell in love with the climate and the charm of another small town. He promised to return whenever he felt the need for rest and relaxation.   He kept his promise to return by coming back to the Little White House for 11 presidential working vacations and five post presidential trips after he left office. Truman claimed Key West was his second favorite place on earth, only surpassed by his hometown of Independence, Missouri.

He spent a total of 175 days at his winter White House during his administration and used it to conduct official business. The work of the president never ends and Truman complained to a family member that he signed his name 200 to 600 times in a day. In March 1947, Truman announced a change in foreign policy known as the Truman Doctrine and immediately flew to Key West. The full impact of this decision fell upon the president while at his Little White House. In 1948, the Joint Chiefs of Staff met at this house to create the Department of Defense by merging the Departments of War and Navy. This is known as the Key West Accord.

The president's catch of the day included a six-pound grouper and a three-pouch yellowtail
The president's catch of the day included a six-pound grouper and a three-pound yellowtail.
U.S. Navy
Harry S Truman Library

Among the discussions at the Little White House were the development of a massive aid program to rebuild Europe commonly called the Marshall Plan, discussions concerning the partition of Palestine and the recognition of Israel, the response to the Cold War. Domestic issues included labor unrest and Truman’s fifth Civil Rights Executive Order requiring federal contractors hire minorities. Improvements in communication and transportation allowed the president to operate the government from Key West. On his first visit in November 1946, there were 16 staff plus secret service, and the vacation lasted one week. In March 1952 on his eleventh visit, the staff had grown to 57, and they spent nearly a month at the Little White House.

Between 1957 and 1969, Truman made five post-presidential visits to Key West staying in a private residence in town and visiting the Little White House.  Successive presidents continued to use the Little White House. President Dwight Eisenhower convened meetings in the house in December 1955 and January 1956, when he was recuperating from a heart attack. On March 26, 1961, just 23 days before the Bay of Pigs, President John F. Kennedy had a summit meeting with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan here.  Kennedy used the house again on November 26, 1962, returning to make an inspection following the Cuban missile crisis.  Recently, President Clinton in 2005 and President Carter in 2007 stayed at the retreat with their families.  Other notable visitors include King Hussein I of Jordan in 1972. On April 2-6, 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell opened peace talks in this house between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Now owned by the State of Florida and restored with the help of private donors, the Little White House is open to the public as a historic house museum. Most of the furnishings are original to the 1949 remodeling for President Truman. The United States government’s Departments of Defense and State regularly use the Little White House for dinners and diplomatic missions.

Plan your visit

The Little White House is located at 111 Front St. in Key West, FL and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The house is open daily, year-round from 9:00am to 4:30pm. An admission fee is charged. Tours are offered approximately every 20 minutes. The botanical gardens are usually open from 7:00am until 6:00pm in conjunction with Truman Annex Gated Community. The botanical tour of the gardens that surround the building is self -guided and free.  Visit the Harry S Truman Little White House website or call 305-294-9911 for more information.

Visit the National Park Service Virtual Museum Exhibit on Harry S Truman: American Visionary.

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