Inside the Winter White House: The 70s Nixon Florida Home

Before acquiescing to Richard Nixon‘s 1968 presidential race, Pat Nixon enjoyed his leisurely company at their winter getaway near Miami, Florida, seen here during a ride on their friend Bebe Rebozo’s houseboat.

He came to Florida not just because California was too far, but because he loved it.

The only President born in California, Richard Nixon had a lifelong enjoyment of warm climates and life near the ocean. In fact, despite their differences, Nixon drew as much sustenance from the sea as did his House colleague and 1960 presidential election rival John F. Kennedy.

Nixon’s Yorba Linda, California birthplace.

Nixon was born in the Orange County, California farming community of Yorba Linda, in 1913, and was raised in the county’s inland city of Whittier, where he attended high school and college.

Once he had the chance to leave the Golden State, at age 21, Nixon was eager to begin exploring the country and then the wider world. 

California, however, always called Nixon back, whether while attending Duke Law School in North Carolina, serving in naval posts across the country and in the Asian Pacific during World War II, or living on New York’s Fifth Avenue as a lawyer. 

La Casa Pacifica, the Nixon Western White House, in San Clemente, California.

After winning the presidency in 1968, he bought the Spanish style estate he dubbed La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente, California with its sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. The home is separated from the Orange County beach by a rise of thick vegetation kept lush by the ocean mist. Making the cross-country trip from Washington on Air Force One, however, proved too time-consuming and costly for the President to take short, frequent weekend trips to California. Using it as what he called a “Western White House,” he hosted a state dinner as well as conducted his presidential duties from an office there, but only executive business for lengthy stays of a week or more.  He was also conscious of the cost to the government of transporting and housing the necessary executive staff there for too long. 

Despite the charges made against Nixon in 1973, during the Watergate scandal investigation, that the government paid for home and landscape improvements to his personal property, it was actually the U.S. Secret Service, a division of the Treasury Department, which ordered the changes. The agency insisted on standards of security that required new ground lighting, electrical movement detection,  impenetrable gates, and state-of-the-art communication technology.

The Nixon Winter White House in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Bay side of the Winter White House.

And so, it became far more practical for the President and Mrs. Nixon their daughters Julie and Tricia, and sons-in-law David Eisenhower, and Edward Cox, to make the shorter three-hour flight down the eastern seaboard to their other seaside house,  in Key Biscayne, Florida, one of the outlying areas of Miami Beach’s island region. 

Used most frequently during the winter months for long weekends, Nixon dubbed it his “Winter White House.”

The Winter White House, last house on the right, and helipad at far right.

The Nixons had actually bought the Florida home shortly before purchasing their California home, before the 1968 election had been won.

Posing with an 8 year old fan, the Vice President, spending his 1957 Christmas vacation in Key Biscayne.

Florida golfing, late 1950s.

Since the early 1950s, Nixon had frequenty spent his family vacation over the Christmas holiday at Key Biscayne.

He also went there on his own for short weekend trips, finding escape from Washington in the solitude of deep-sea fishing or companionship of golf. (see yesterday’s article, Miami Golf and UFOs? Why Jackie Gleason Campaigned for Nixon and a Shocking Allegation)

Kennedy comes to meet Nixon at the Key Biscayne Hotel, where the outgoing Vice President was staying.

In fact, Nixon was unwinding at the old Key Biscayne Hotel just a week after losing the 1960 presidential election to JFK when the new president-elect, staying at his parents’ winter home in nearby Palm Beach, came to confer with the outgoing Vice President there. 

And just like Kennedy and his father Joe, Nixon was an avid regular at Joe’s Stone Crabs, a popular seafood restaurant in Miami.

President Nixon with his confidante Bebe Rebozo outside his Florida Winter White House.

Shortly thereafter, Nixon’s growing friendship with Key Biscayne Bank founder and president Bebe Rebozo and his subsequent facilitating of Nixon’s eventual purchase of the Winter White House, near one owned by Rebozo, was a subject in a recent, controversial critique of the President. Based on one journalist’s analysis, he concluded that the Cuban-American banker regularly transacted business with underworld figures in the region.

The President’s Irish setter King Timahoe with Nixon and Rebozo at Key Biscayne.

The author’s more sensationalized conclusion that the President’s depth of emotional friendship with Rebozo went beyond his reliance on their confidential companionship to further intimacy. Despite the long and intense research apparently conducted for his book, no definitive and evidential documentation seems to support what is, ultimately, a speculative and subjective opinion. One glaring fact which strongly belies it was Rebozo’s intensely close relationship and even familial confidentiality which existed between him and Nixon’s wife and daughters. 

Another shadow more publicly overt hung over the otherwise sunny Florida spot, a variation on the San Clemente charges that federal funds were used to improve the Nixon property. Specifically, the charge focused on the creation of a relatively modest concrete helicopter landing pad on the compound property.

The Winter White House helipad.

The press at the time suggested it had been constructed at the direct order of the President.

In truth, Nixon was just fine being driven to the isolated point on what was technically a small peninsula.

Local Republican Committwomen and a VFW member await Nixon’s arrival via the Biscayne Bay bridge, to welcome him. (key-biscayne.com)

He was known to especially enjoy the drive from Miami International Airport to Key Biscayne because of the warm reception that many loyal as well as non-partisan local residents always welcomed him with when he came to town and they had notice of his imminent arrival. 

Key Biscayne Elementary School students await the visit to their school by the President. (key-biscayne.com)

The controversial Key Biscayne, actually, had also been built by order of the Secret Service. Responsible for ensuring the safer and more secure transportation of the President, they preferred that he arrive at and depart from his home by air, rather than be driven in and out of the small community along a well-known route, on publicly-accessible roadways.

Bebe Rebozo (left), FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (second from left), Nixon and Hoover’s companion and aide Clyde Tolson meet in the Winter White House living room. The family’s poodle Vicki lays on the floor listening.

Since Nixon rarely spent more than a week at his Key Biscayne house, he was able to schedule meetings with a minimum of senior staff members who always typically accompanied him everywhere. 

Nixon conferring with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger at the Winter White House, 1973. (Corbis)

Occasionally, foreign and military advisors came to brief the President in Key Biscayne on time-sensitive international issues, but he generally made it clear that if it could wait until his return to Washington – it should wait.

Considering the timeline accounting for his more than fifty visits to the Winter White House, it was inevitable that the location was also where meetings were convened to deal with the ensuing investigation into the White House staff’s 1972 criminal directive to burglarize the files of Democratic National headquarters and the subsequent inquiry seeking to discover just to what extent the President was involved in the cover-up of it.

President-elect Nixon confers with John Mitchell, Bob Finch and H.R. Haldeman on his Cabinet choices, 1968.

Among those who met with Nixon here were his Attorney-General and the later Committee to Re-Elect the President chairman John Mitchell and his White House Chief of Staff  H.R. Haldeman. Both men were subsequently found guilty of criminal obstruction of justice. 

As the Watergate scandal worsened, the remoteness of the one-level concrete block-wall and stucco Winter White House only seemed to encourage Nixon’s withdrawal from his otherwise highly-accessible interactions with the White House press corps,  reinforcing a literal bunker mentality.

The Nixon Winter White House pool, facing Key Biscayne Bay.

Since the Winter White House was never intended to serve as a place for the Nixons to welcome state visitors or entertain guests, Pat Nixon furnished the three-bedroom home in the same minimal style found in other nearby seasonal-use houses, using rattan, bamboo and wicker furniture with tropical-motif and bright-colored cushioning, and floral cotton draperies which kept out the sun over glass-slat windows, opened at upward angles to let cool air to flow through the house. Allegedly, there was also some lime-green indoor-outdoor carpeting, ubiquitous in southern Florida.

A Life magazine cover story showed Nixon walking along the side of the pool; relatively few photos were publicly released of the interior rooms.

Among the private homes of recent Presidents, be it the Reagan Ranch, the Carter home, the Bush family Compound in Maine and Texas ranch and the Ford winter ski house in Vail, Colorado, an exact vision of what the rooms inside the Nixon family’s Florida home looked like is nearly impossible to piece together.

When the President had meetings there with officials on public business and the White House Press Office wanted to distribute pictures of the conferees, White House Photgrapher Ollie Atkins was permitted in to snap a few formal, indoor shots. Only by these are some of the interiors captured for posterity, and then, only in black and white.

The Nixons and daughter Tricia, arriving in Cocoa Beach by helicopter from their Key Biscayne to watch an Apollo space rocket launch. (Corbis)

One possible reason for the lack of pictures of the rooms may have been First Lady Pat Nixon making the case that some vestige of her family’s personal privacy should not be publicly divulged, having already conceded up for media disclosure information about the family’s finances, items exchanged among them as gifts, and their medical reports.

For Mrs. Nixon, the most consistently joyous times of her tenure as First Lady were those she was able to share in the company of her daughters. When either of the adult children, the married Julie or Tricia (who married in 1971), came to spend a few days with her in Florida, she became exuberantly animated.

A year before becoming First Lady, Pat Nixon with hibiscus flower at the family’s new Key Biscyane, Florida home.

Although born in Nevada, Pat Nixon considered California home and had grown up enjoying its beaches and even surfed there in her youth.

Similarly, it was the natural environment of Florida, its salt water swimming, sunshine and indigenous landscaping of hibiscus plants and royal palms where she seemed to find her most, natural pleasure.

Pat Nixon with a cat on her Key Biscayne property.

As the Watergate scandal further engulfed the Administration, however, the First Lady found the President’s inclination to isolate while in Florida to make life there nearly as confining as it was in the White House. During her earlier times in Florida, she’d relished just walking the beach shoreline with her shoes off or exploring Miami with her daughters. At one point, when first living at the Winter White House, she had even helped care for a cat which apparently came onto the property looking for food and attention; whether it was a family pet is unclear.

Julie Nixon Eisenhower and her mother Pat Nixon were snapped as they strolled along the beach at Miami.

Her longest-term and most trusted friends, however, were not in Florida but still in California. She may have also had a slightly wistful association with the beach in Florida. As her daughter recalled, during the family’s vacation there over the 1967 holiday season, Pat Nixon had sat in resigned silence on the beach, feeling deeply ambivalent about her husband’s decision to launch his second presidential campaign once they returned to New York.

Former President and Mrs. Nixon arrive at Miami Airport from their New York home, on the way to join Rebozo and his wife in the Caribbean, circa 1988. (Don Boyd)

Following Nixon’s resignation from the presidency in August of 1974, he and Pat returned to live in La Casa Pacifica until 1982, when they relocated to New York City and then, subsequently, New Jersey.

Although the former President and First Lady visited Orlando, Florida to take their grandchildren on a trip to Disney World, and stopped in the Miami area on their way to join Rebozo and his wife in the Caribbean, they made no visits back to Key Biscayne.

This living room is in the home built on the site of the demolished Nixon home but with the same private beach view they saw.

They sold the Winter White House after the presidency, and new owners built a second story on the simple structure, giving it a grander look. It was torn down in 2004 and a new, modern home built on the site.

Ironically, the one association of the Nixon years which endures in Key Biscayne is the Presidential Helipad that was once criticized as being built for private use on public funds.

The sea birds seem to enjoy it. 

All that remains of the Nixon Winter White House is the deteriorating Helipad.


Categories: First Families, First Ladies, History, Politics, Presidential Homes, Presidents, The Nixons

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10 replies »

  1. I love the photo of the Nixons at the top of this post. Never saw Pat looking so relaxed and happy. It’s really a remarkable shot. These posts on the winter White Houses are great and I hope you continue them. Any floor plans available? Knowing the layout of rooms always helps me to visualize a space and how people lived within it. I’d especially like to see how Casa Pacifica was laid out. It’s always seemed a very fine house to me.

    • No floorplans on any of these homes, unfortunately. I did have an extensive tour of La Casa Pacifica which was filmed and is the pilot for a series I hope to launch called The President’s Residence. More later on all that…..I need to clone four of me and hire them as staff and aides….thanks for the comment and glad you enjoyed. New photos of the family at Winter White House will be forthcoming…

  2. Key BIscayne still has a charm all its own. I understand why the Nixon family loved it there. There is something magical about the place.

    • I’ve never been there – and sure hope to one day. The same can be said about San Clemente – one of the last untouched southern California beachtowns – really much like walking back into the 70s!

      • I was living near Key Biscayne from 2000-2004 and had the good fortune to visit the site of the former Winter White House on many occasions before it was torn down. On one of my visits, I was able to snap several photographs of its beautiful double front doors, hand carved of dark wood–with a large “N” carved into one & the presidential seal in the other. I’d be happy to share them with you some time if you’ve never seen them and would be interested. I’ve often wondered whatever happened to those doors after the house was demolished.

        • Dear Christopher – Thanks so much for taking the time to write – and provide the information about the Nixon Winter White House. I apologize for the delayed response – a number of replies I’d written did not seem to post. And, of course, if you wish to publicly share your original photography that would be fantastic. What I would do is post them as an addendum to the article with full credit to you of course. You can send them to me as jpegs at my public email carlanthonyonline@gmail.com.

  3. I would have loved to see the grounds & interior of Casa Pacifica. Nixon is so mysterious, in spite of all the press, good & mostly bad. Pat sure looks happy in her “Lilly” dress. “Lilly’s” were 1st made popular by Jackie O, who got hers from her Palm Beach friend, Lilly Pulitizer. They were very affordable, although usually sold in better dress boutques. I wished I’d saved the couple I owned.

    Your TV project sounds wonderful, I sure hope U can get it finalized soon.

    • There are photographs I have of La Casa Pacifica and those from the time we filmed there. I may upload that pilot on here for an eventual story. It truly is a spectacular home – so integrated into the natural setting on that bluff overlooking the Pacific. Thanks for your comments S – always, always enjoy and appreciate them.

  4. Along with Mrs Kennedy, I believe Pat was our most elegant First Lady. She had charisma, although the times didn’t allow many to see it. Now, almost 20 years after her death, there may be more of an appreciation of her basic decency and goodness. I hope.

    • Part of why I bother to do what I do is to hopefully bring a rational and fair focus on so many people who brought the compassion and goodness of themselves as people to their profiles as public personae, people like Pat Nixon but also – as you will see in the articles I’ve done elsewhere here – others are diverse as Duke Kahanamoku, Mae West and John Glenn! I recognize, however, that very often when a persona is not solidified in the public imagination at the time that person is at the height of their visibility, that they are then cast as un-memorable, fairly or unfairly. I think the challenge of having people recognize and appreciate what a valuable person Pat Nixon was is that so much time has passed since she was squarely in the public mind. Yet we have also seen examples of how perception of past figures can be changed. So, in my small way, I hope I might help that process.

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