This Is How You “Flip” The White House

On Friday, President Obama will hand the keys to the White House to President-elect Donald Trump. And like many aspects of his upcoming presidency, precisely what Trump plans to do with 1600 Pennsylvania is a mystery to many. Will Trump set the Oval Office aglow with gold-plated accents? Will our new FLOTUS get her very own glam room? Will Trump ditch the executive digs altogether to spend most of his nights surrounded by the opulent comforts of his Trump Tower home? Will Melania and their 10-year-old son ever move in? Only time will tell. But regardless of how Trump ultimately chooses to use the People’s House, one constant of presidential transition tradition will remain: January 20 is moving day. While the world watches Trump take the oath of office, dozens of permanent White House staff will be locked in a race against the clock, preparing the six-level, 132-room executive mansion for the new first family. In less than six hours, the Obamas' things will be hauled out and the new first family's moved in. You can think of it as HGTV-home-makeover-meets-Downton-Abbey — on steroids. “It is organized chaos, and it is scripted,” Gary J. Walters, a veteran White House staffer, tells Refinery29. Walters would know. For three decades, Walters was in charge of orchestrating the move. The longtime White House chief usher served four presidents in that role, from Ronald Reagan to Obama. Before that, he also served as assistant chief usher under two prior administrations. In an interview with Refinery29, Walters broke down what goes down within the gates of 1600 Pennsylvania when it comes time to "flip" the White House for the new president.

Step 1: Start Prepping Before The New President Is Even Elected
Like with most moves, the process starts with setting a budget. There’s no deposit or broker’s fee required to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania. But there are moving trucks to hire, rooms to redecorate, and drapes to replace. As we’ve all experienced, those costs add up fast. The official budget is typically about $100,000, Walters said. But it isn’t unusual for the incoming first family to raise private funds or dip into their own pockets to cover the costs. (We imagine that won’t be a problem for Trump.)

The aim is to have the new first family walk into their home when they come in after the inaugural parade.

Gary J. Walters, former White House chief usher
“That sounds like a lot of money, but it goes in a hurry,” he said. “You’re talking about some carpets that are 40-feet long and 14-feet wide that go in hallways. They wear out, they have to be replaced.” How much home rehab is done is up to the new president and his or her family. The Carters, for example, elected to do very little work when they first moved in, Walters said. But the process of budgeting for any eventual changes starts before the field of presidential candidates is even set — regardless of whether a sitting president is up for re-election. And the pre-election prep doesn’t stop there. Throughout the campaign, Walters’ staff would track the tastes and preferences of all the could-be commander-in-chiefs — even those whose candidacies don’t end up lasting long (Yes, that would have meant making roughly two-dozen dossiers during this past election). The "candidate books" would contain everything from names of family members to notes on restaurants they eat at during the campaign (No word on whether the White House chef was able to secure Colonel Sanders’ secret recipe for the incoming diner-in-chief).
Photo: Don Emmert/Getty Images.
Trump is also expected to spend time as president at his Mar-a-Lago estate. Whether he takes decor inspiration from the Florida property is yet to be seen.
“If an article comes out and says their close friends who they like to spend time with in the summer like to go out and hike the Appalachian Trail [with them], we keep track of those things... That can give you a sense of what they like,” Walters explained. Sometimes, the task is easier than others. The White House staff had a good sense of George W. Bush's likes and dislikes from day one, thanks to his past visits as "first son." But the intel collected doesn't always end up being accurate, Walters cautioned. Another former White House staffer recounted to Vanity Fair stocking up on shampoo and deodorant for then-first lady Hillary Clinton, based on information from friends. One problem? It wasn't the right kind.

Step 2: Make The Ultimate Packing List
Once the nominees are selected at the Republican and Democratic conventions, the real work begins. The top priority? Priming the possible president-elect and his or her family for life in the White House. Walters and his staff prepped "first family briefing books," a.k.a. the ultimate moving guide for the incoming residents. The books included a list of questions that covered pretty much everything aides needs to know about making the White House feel like home, as well as floorplans and staff lists. In all, it would span 10 to 15 pages. "Are there any dietary restrictions? What kind of mattresses do you sleep on? What kind of toothpaste do you use?” Walters said of the questions asked. “They are questions that are meant to start a conversation.”

When they go out the front gate, and are headed down to Capitol Hill, the plan goes into effect.

Gary J. Walters, former White House chief usher
If a pet was in the picture, he'd even ask what kind of kibble the furry friend prefers — and how they'll get to their new home. "When I talked to Barbara Bush about bringing her dog Millie, she said, 'You don't have to worry about that on Inaugural Day. She’s actually off getting married,'" Walters recalled. "About three months later, Millie had puppies.” Floor plans and books of White House furniture are there to help the POTUS and his or her family figure out how they want to use and decorate the space. The White House has enough antique furniture to completely furnish the entire building, but the first family can bring in their own belongings, too, Walters said. Another perk of living in the presidential pad? An art collection that would put even the best selection of vintage posters and Etsy prints to shame. "If you want a Monet or a Cezanne, we have them," he said.
Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images.
White House Staff change the furnishings of the Oval Office while newly elected Bill Clinton is being sworn in as President of the United States on January 20, 1993.
It's not just the first family’s residence that gets a personal touch. The president might pick a new desk, rug, or art for the Oval Office. George W. Bush, for example, opted for a piece of art that he also used for the cover (and title) of his book. The painting of a man riding a horse up a trail, “A Charge to Keep,” hung on the wall. “The Oval Office is a reflection of the current president’s thinking,” Walters explained. So if Trump wanted to hang a portrait of himself or line the shelves with golf trophies, he very well could. All the items requested by the new first family need to be ready to go before the big move. While the outgoing first family might choose to start packing up some things early (moving vans were recently spotted outside of the Obamas' future D.C. home), the actual turnover doesn't start until January 20. "They should feel like it’s still their home and they’re not being pushed out," Walters said. "Nothing is done until they say so.”

If you want a Monet or a Cezanne, we have them.

Gary J. Walters, former White House chief usher
Step 3: "Organized Chaos"
Finally, on January 20, it's time for the flip. On inauguration morning, the president typically greets the president-elect and his family in the Blue Room of the White House. By mid-morning, the president-elect departs for the swearing-in ceremony. That's when the clock starts ticking. "When they go out the front gate and are headed down to Capitol Hill, the plan goes into effect," Walters said. Moving trucks are brought onto the grounds and a team of 90-plus White House staff — from carpenters tasked with hanging paintings to curators brought on site to oversee the rotation of antiques — springs into action. For the next five hours, it’s all hands on deck. Clothes come out of the boxes and go into the closets. Sheets in the president's preferred thread count go on just-moved beds. The pantries are stocked with POTUS and FLOTUS’ favorite snacks. All in less time than it would take for you to binge-watch your way through The OA. "[You're] moving pieces of furniture out, moving pieces of furniture in, and trying to get their personal belongings in place," he said. "The aim is to have the new first family walk into their home when they come in after the inaugural parade.”
Photo: The White House/Getty Images.
The president doesn't do any of the heavy lifting on Inauguration Day. But as this this February 2009 handout from the White House shows, the interior style is always evolving. Here, U.S. President Barack Obama and then-Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas move a couch in the Oval Office
As with most moves, things inevitably can go wrong — even with all the planning and a schedule crafted with military precision (Walters' was broken down into roughly 30-minute increments, he said). During President Bill Clinton's inauguration back in 1993, Walters lost his voices to laryngitis. He walked around writing instructions on a notepad all day. "I had to whisper in his ear to welcome him into his new home," he said. Of course, the home projects at 1600 Pennsylvania don't go on hiatus the minute the new president walks in the door. As many of us can relate, designing the perfect pad is always a work in progress, even if you’re the president. "Will it look the same way six months from what it does on Inaugural Day? No," Walters said. "But you can make it comfortable for them. You can make it their home."

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