When John Zweifel first exhibited his miniature White House in Little Rock in 1979, no one seemed more fascinated by it than Arkansas’s new governor. After marveling at the details in the meticulously crafted replica, with running water, phones that ring and postage-stamp-size TVs that get good reception, Bill Clinton told Zweifel, “That’s where I’m going to live.”
For the rest of us, the best chance to get up close and personal with the Executive Mansion may be Zweifel’s 60-ft., 10-ton model, on display through Sept. 17 at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. Unlike the official White House tour, the 1-in.-equals-1-ft. replica includes the First Family’s private quarters, the Press Briefing Room and the Oval Office. And the ever-changing model has even included such intriguing details as the cigar burns Richard Nixon left on the Lincoln Sitting Room carpet, the marks Amy Carter made roller-skating on the East Room’s wood floor and a jar of jelly beans on Ronald Reagan’s desk. “I’m giving people an experience that could be matched only by opening up all the rooms,” says the 63-year-old Orlando artist. “This is the people’s house.”
A self-described “very patriotic person,” Zweifel first contemplated his homage to the Presidency in 1956, but it took him 19 years to wangle the necessary access (from President Gerald Ford, who was eager to burnish the White House’s image after Watergate). The first version of the model was completed soon after, and ever since, Zweifel has trucked the display to more than 350 shopping malls and state fairs in the United States and shown it in Europe and Japan. Every President since Ford has admired the replica, and most have offered pointers. “Bush moved his attaché case,” Zweifel recalls. And Reagan said, “John, you’ve got to have more squirrels” in the Rose Garden.
With Clinton came a tiny Socks the cat and Buddy the dog. “This shows it as it really is,” says former White House curator Rex W. Scouten. But such realism takes a small army of volunteers-including Zweifel’s interior-designer wife, Jan, 63, and their six children—laboring over details with tweezers, toothpicks and dentist’s tools to maintain. “It was one of the big projects in our house,” says his daughter Janet, 30, a grade school assistant principal. “Every summer we traveled with it.”
Over the years, Zweifel estimates, the project has taken more than 400,000 hours and some $1 million to keep current. But for the Monroe, Wis., native, it’s a labor of love. The son of homemaker Kathryn and Earl, a car dealer, Zweifel has been fascinated by miniatures since he was a teen, when he created a 12,000-piece replica circus that included a working calliope and flying-trapeze artists. Later, after dropping out of art school, he started a design business and built displays for several Manhattan department stores as well as Disneyland and the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
Since the ’70s, however, the White House has consumed Zweifel’s attention. He visits the real thing every two months and takes photos to document changes. And come January he’ll renovate it yet again. After all, no matter who moves in, the new Decorator in Chief will, at a minimum, change the drapes and put his own touches on the Oval Office. Zweifel knows the drill. “Most of the time, we finish making a rug, they’ve got a new one,” he says. “We’ve got to move fast.”