Photo: Peter W. Cross/Visit FloridaJohn Zweifel and wife Jan own the Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont.
Thinking small: John Zweifel's miniature White House
John Zweifel's miniature White House finds a home in Clermont.
John Zweifel took his first tour of the White House in 1956, when he was 20. He was at once enthralled and disappointed — being there was a thrill, but when he learned that the tour only included five rooms, he began pining to see the other 127. His desire to see the rest of the house, and enable others to see it, became an obsession.
"My dream was to take the White House to the people" via a detailed reproduction, says Zweifel, now 79.
By the time of that first visit, Zweifel was already an accomplished miniaturist. He'd started at age 4, whittling objects from cardboard and carving figures out of bars of soap. While still a teenager, he built a 14,000-piece replica of a Ringling Bros. And Barnum & Bailey circus scene.
Building a miniature version of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that he could share with others meant getting back inside to see all the rooms, however.
After six years of letter writing, lobbying and calling, Zweifel was allowed access by Jackie Kennedy, but she didn't allow him to see every room. He got the run of much of the first floor, where he and his wife, Jan, measured each room and made sketches of the wallpaper and furnishings. But the family's living quarters on the second floor remained off-limits.
Zweifel decided to proceed with his replica and finally got full access when Gerald Ford became president in 1974.
"Ford was in a very tough situation, following Nixon," Zweifel says. "No one trusted the White House any more, so Ford wanted it opened up to everybody. The Secret Service didn't like that idea, but I was allowed in to do my research."
By 1976, in time for the nation's bicentennial celebration, Zweifel had nearly finished his model, scaled at one inch per foot. He replicated everything he could, from chairs and carpet to paintings. He made postage-stamp-sized television sets and tiny vases filled with tiny fake flowers. He juggled his work on the model, which required thousands of hours of carving and painting, with his day job as owner of a company that staged events and created window displays at department stores across the country.
Once completed, the 60-footlong model spent most of the next two decades on tour. The mini-White House also traveled to England, Japan and the Netherlands, where in 1982 anti- American protesters splashed it with red paint.
Today, the restored model has a permanent home in Clermont at the Presidents Hall of Fame, a tiny roadside attraction. Before Zweifel bought the hall around 1990, it featured life-sized wax figures of each president. The figures are still there, including a few that have drooped somewhat over the years. But the main attraction now is the model of the White House, which Zweifel carefully alters each time a new president takes office and changes the furnishings.
"I'll never be finished," he says.
The hall's staff includes manager Joy England, who has worked there for 15 years, and Bret Gordon, who sometimes leads tours dressed as President Ulysses S. Grant.
"A lot of history is kind of reduced to names and dates," Gordon says. "Grant was a person with a family and feelings, and I think our museum portrays this really well. It's not just information to read.
Here, you can see it, feel it and that's what makes it real."
Zweifel knows the hall could be spiffier. The interior is cramped, and the exterior needs a paint job, which he plans to do himself with help from volunteers. Recently, he purchased four adjacent acres, where he hopes to expand the hall of fame to include additional displays and more in-depth information about each president.
"I have big plans," Zweifel says. "I want people to walk through here and get goose bumps. I want to instill a stronger spirit of patriotism in our country."