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Abandon your rubephobia for a day and queue up for a White House tour. Standing in line, you’ll suddenly recall all three choruses of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” as you are subjected to a continuous Hall of Presidents narrativeundoubtedly designed to subdue the crowd into a nonthreatening patriotic trance. Later on, a self-guided tour winds you past the Jacqueline Kennedy sculpture garden, past paintings of former first ladies clad in evening gowns, and past a state dining room where foreign dignitaries from Queen Elizabeth to Boris Yeltsin have been received.
All the while, the tour narrative keeps winding back to “the fire.” You remember, right? A war, the Redcoats, and an American president skipping town with nothing but a life-sized painting of George Washington and a pair of silver candlesticks? On the tour, it’s all good fun. But on your way out, ask any uniformed Secret Service agent where the president would go if the White House burned down today, and they lose all patriotic jocularity.
“We’re not allowed to disclose that information,” says one.
In 1814, things were a lot more chill. When the British burned Washington during the War of 1812, there were no contingency plans: no helicopters, no underground bunkers, no presidential escape hatches. When it came time for President James Madison to get out of the proverbial kitchen, he did what any president would do if the Federal City burned: He went straight to the Vernon Jordan of early-19th-century Maryland.
Madison and Attorney General Richard Rush made their way north on Georgia Avenue, just past Olney, to the home of Caleb Bentleythe first postmaster of Brookeville, Md.and his wife Henrietta, a longtime friend of Madison’s wife, Dolley. On Aug. 26, 1814, they turned the house into the capital of the United States, and it’s been known as “Madison House” from the time they left the following morning.
Not surprisingly, taking a tour of the northern White House turned out to be a lot easier than seeing the real one. Instead of calling my congresswoman and being told I couldn’t get an actual guided tour until May, I just drove up Georgia Avenue. Instead of standing in line, all I did was knock on the door. And instead of getting an officious executive-branch tour manager, I got Rick Allan. He lives in this particular white house, and his daughter sleeps in the room where the escaping Madison laid his head. “Hi,” he said, and invited me in.
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Allan, it turns out, has at least one thing in common with James Madison: being a refugee from Washington. Of course, Madison made the 18-mile dash up Georgia Avenue to flee the Redcoats, whereas Allan’s escape merely took him a few miles past the end of the Red Line. “My wife Diane and I moved here from Palisades, D.C., in 1980,” says Allan, who works in town at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “We were ready for a change.”
The exurban locale brought the Allans a big yard and a bucolic neighborhoodjust the kind of digs that make old friends want to stop by for a visit. As it happened, however, the address also attracted all kinds of new friends to the family’s abode: According to Diane Allan, on average, at least one Madison maven shows up every week. Others just wander around the front lawn. “We have all kinds of visits from people who just come up and knock on the door,” she explains.
In a nod to history, the Allans have re-created the White House’s Blue Roomit’s a perfect peacock shade that Rick hunted down after seeing the original color on TV. Otherwise, however, history buffs expecting an early-19th-century War Room are bound to be underwhelmed. In place of an Oval Office, the Allans have a TV room. It’s rectangular. And instead of a Lincoln bedroom, they have, well, the guest room. (I suppose Rick Allan could have let campaign contributors sleep there during his 14-year stint as the town’s mayor.) Unless you count Madison’s ineffable aura, there are few trappings of presidential grandeur here.
When Madison die-hards come inside, they’re always most eager to check the room where the fourth president slept. These days, 13-year-old Libby Allan shares the suite with her gerbil, Scurrier. “When I walk on my bedroom floor in my Sketchers and jeans, it’s kind of neat to think about James Madison pacing around in loafers and lacy knee socks,” she says. “People stop by at the worst times and are like, ‘I just have a few questions.’”
It can be even more ignominious for her dad. Rick Allan says that when he’s out doing yardwork, he often gets mistaken for the grounds-keeper and asked where the owner is. “You basically end up feeling like the latest tenant,” he says. “You’re a tenant with a very serious responsibility to be a good steward to the place.”
And history’s rent ain’t cheap. The Allans’ house may have been the White House once, but ever since Madison chugged back down to the District, it hasn’t had the benefit of presidential-caliber repairs. “Owning a house like this has all sorts of unglamorous attachments,” says Rick Allan. “It’s This Old House…the unseen side.”
While most White House occupants are eager to hold on to their address, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., the Allans have rather more ambivalent feelings about the stresses of office at 205 Market St. “People love historymost people are fascinated with older houses,” says Rick Allan. “But we’ve put the house up for sale several times. It’s a classic love-hate….Because you live in a place with a name, ‘Madison House,’ people react to you differently. It’s kind of unfortunate. Some people think it’s ‘cool,’ as my daughter would say, but it creates a social distance. People expect you to act the part.”
So far, however, Rick Allan has managed to avoid such Madison-like behavior as vetoing bills, issuing proclamations, and mustering the militia to fight the king of England. Meanwhile, Diane Allan says that although her family has never received an official invite to the nation’s most famous public housing, the current residents of that other White House are always welcome to retrace Madison’s historic jaunt up Georgia Avenueas long as they only stay one night and don’t go inviting Boris Yeltsin to dinner.CP