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Presidential powwows

Americans are mobile folk and that goes double for the country’s commander in chief. Well before Air Force One, U.S. presidents were getting around this vast country, meeting constituents, hunkering down with aides and other world leaders or simply taking time out for some needed respite.
Teddy Roosevelt is among the best examples of a roving chief executive. Before and after he was president, Roosevelt thundered around the West, staying at favorite hotels and meeting places that still bustle with business — the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M., the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs, Colo.; and the Rough Riders Hotel and Conference Center in Medora, N.D., among them.

Follow the footsteps of the 44 U.S. presidents and you’ll find a circuitous path to antebellum estates, seaside escapes, woodland retreats, Colonial villages and elegant hotels, most of which welcome meetings and give meeting-goers the experience of gathering in a place where a president once pondered important issues.

Dick Cheatham has visited a number of them. Almost 25 years ago, he founded Living History Associates, a speakers bureau that books historians and scholars who portray presidents and other world leaders. Among the 40 personages are eight presidents: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, James Monroe, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and John Tyler (portrayed by Cheatham).

Among Cheatham’s favorite presidential haunts are Colonial Williamsburg, (“So many big names have passed through there, and they have such great meeting facilities.”), the Greenbrier and Homestead resorts, where many presidents, including Tyler, vacationed, and Monticello, the Charlottesville, Va., home of Thomas Jefferson, which recently opened new meeting space.

Little White House gets more authentic

Places where presidents lived or spent extended periods of time have an added appeal. For example, Truman’s Little White House in Key West, Fla., a white clapboard house originally part of a military base, was Harry Truman’s favorite escape.

Today, the house is surrounded by a residential development, and the military compound is gone. The house resembles the big White House in little more than name and color, not as starchy and formal as its Washington counterpart.

Yet the Little White House is so authentic to 1949, when Truman began going there, that guests might get goose bumps as they dine at the Henredon dining table for 14, the same table used by Truman and the five subsequent presidents who used the house.

“To sit in this dining room, with its big vases and its paintings, well, you can’t help but feel important,” said Nadene Grossman, owner of Key West destination management company We’ve Got the Keys. “Anyone who is a history buff or a presidential history buff is taken by its history and accessibility.”

The Young Presidents Organization and the World Presidents Organization (WPO) have dined there; so have the Joint Chiefs Staff and retired Army Gen. Colin Powell.

Getting the house back to 1949 has come gradually, through a $1 million restoration that involved scientific paint analysis, a search of the Naval Academy’s art collection, fortuitous eBay finds, discount fabric store shopping and the timely arrival of a telling photo of the dining room circa 1949.

Now, with everything from the dining room’s original aqua paint and copies of the original paintings that hung on the walls, the house is as it was when Miami interior designer Haygood Lasseter, concocted its blend of coastal casual and presidential circumspect.

“Holy smokes, did this decorator have it together!” said Bob Wolz, the house’s executive director. “It is not White House gilt; it is not ostentatious by any means. You get the feeling that Harry Truman was one of us.”

Yet, the home is not unbecoming its role as a meeting place for global power brokers. Lasseter designed “a setting suitable to the caliber of the guest coming here,” said Wolz. “He knew the president would be entertaining heads of state, and it shouldn’t just be a fishing camp.”

That the house graciously welcomes small meetings is among its virtues. There can be dinners around the Truman table; larger dinners, for up to 94, at tables in the dining room and living areas, and outdoor events for even larger groups, set among landscaping that was recently redone to match its appearance in the 1940s.

Learning more about Truman’s and the house’s role in American history is often a part of an evening at the Little White House. A tour by Wolz is a must when Grossman plans a dinner there for clients.  “Along with dinner, they get their facts,” she said.

Many groups graciously invite Wolz to dine with them, and he is a popular dinner companion. When Wolz sat down to dine with the WPO, “the guys had a hundred questions; he hardly got to eat,” Grossman said.

When presidents talk, people listen

Like Wolz, Cheatham has made educating others his mission. He prides himself on supplying presidential speakers who are educators not entertainers. His speakers have talked to staffs of the White House, the Smithsonian, Lockheed Martin and Verizon, to name a few.

“They speak intelligently about the person, rather than memorize a script,” he said.

And although the speakers are best known for their knowledge, many look like the historic figures they portray. “Some are the spitting image,” Cheatham said.

When a historic figure makes a point, people tend to listen — and to retain the information, Cheatham has found. “The lesson is presented in a way that they will remember it five years from now. If Teddy Roosevelt is talking to you, you remember the lesson and the occasion.”

Not all meeting planners approach his company with education on their minds. Many want a president to appear strictly as entertainment. “They are missing the treasure, for the treasure lies in the ideas,” Cheatham said. “Jefferson is known because he was brilliant. So we should think ‘What did he say that was brilliant, and how could that help me today?’”

Monticello moves into meetings business

Education is also a major element at Monticello, the estate of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Va.

Until this spring, Monticello did minimal meeting business. The opening of the Thomas Jefferson Visitor and Smith Education Center has allowed the estate to open the doors to groups, with some stipulations.

Monticello’s missions are preservation and education, and groups that meet there must share those missions in some form, which is not nearly as limiting as it sounds.

For example, the Federal Executive Institute brought a group to Monticello for a segment of its leadership training course and had a private house and plantation tour followed by a debriefing in one of the visitor center’s new classrooms.

Another corporate group had a luncheon in the center’s Woodland Pavilion, an indoor space, and a private tour of the home. A foundation from Washington had a private house tour, cocktails on the house’s north terrace and dinner at the Jefferson Library, a half mile from the center, with a speaker arranged by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Events are not held in Jefferson’s home but tours are given there.

 “Our missions are preservation and education, and we are here to promote education about Jefferson,” said Natasha Sienitzky, associate director of planning and facilities. “If there wasn’t any sort of Jefferson content, it is not typically an event we would do.”

The new pavilion, at the base of the little mountain upon which Jefferson built his home, is a complex of five buildings that employs many of Jefferson’s principles including emphasis on proper proportion, the marriage of indoor and outdoor spaces and use of natural light. The modern structure looks nothing like the stately house on the hilltop.

“Right from the start, it was determined that we wanted to build a building that didn’t imitate or compete with Monticello,” said Wayne Mogielnicki, director of communications.

Among the spaces in the complex is a theater, where an introductory film about Jefferson is shown during the day. It can be used for dinners and receptions in the evening.

Fourteen months from now, Monticello should be ready to open yet another meeting venue, a 1910 farmhouse on nearby Mount Alto that is being restored for use as an educational facility. The 11,000-square-foot house will seat up to 125 for meals and 150 for lecture.

On the area’s highest point, to Monticello’s south, its views include Monticello. “It is probably the highest point from here to Portugal,” Sienitzky, said with a laugh.

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