John Zweifel calls it his magnificent obsession: a 60-foot-long, 20-foot-wide replica of the White House that took more than 30 years to create.
This is no ordinary "dollhouse."
Every detail of the White House is duplicated right down to the flickering fire in the fireplace and the working light bulbs the size of grains of rice.
The replica, which goes on display tomorrow at the Security Square Mall, contains more than 1,000 hand-carved pieces of furniture constructed from the same kinds of wood used in the original works. There are drapes and bedspreads duplicated down to the last tassel; tiny paintings that look exactly like those hanging in the White House; working television sets the size of quarters; ticking clocks, ringing telephones and water shooting from fountains.
Breathtaking in its size and intricacy, the miniaturized White House was a labor of love for Mr. Zweifel, a 56-year-old artisan who has crafted exhibits for Disney and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.
But he didn't do it alone, he says. His wife, Jan, and their oldest son, Jack, put in a lot of hours. The couple's other five children also did work. And a legion of volunteers contributed money and their skills to complete the project.
Mr. Zweifel began thinking about constructing the replica in the late 1950s and immediately encountered his first obstacle -- skepticism about the complexity and cost of the project.
"My own father said it was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of," Mr. Zweifel says. "He told me to only work on things that you already have a contract on. And no one wanted this display."
His wife also had her doubts. "I thought it was a tremendous
undertaking," she says.
They decided to do it anyway and estimate that the entire project cost them somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 million. (Now the replica is a moneymaker for the Zweifels with malls, festivals and state fairs across the country paying $3,000 to $6,000 a week to display it.)
In the beginning, Mr. Zweifel relied on books, magazine articles and public tours of the real White House to construct the replica. But it wasn't long before he realized that he needed direct access to the White House rooms that aren't on the public tour. It wasn't easy to get.
After years of letter writing and telephone calls, the Zweifels were finally given access to the White House by the Ford administration. Under the watchful eyes of White House security guards, Mr. and Mrs. Zweifel, and a few others took measurements of rooms and furnishings.
The replica was officially unveiled in Washington in 1975 and has been on tour ever since. It was last seen in Baltimore in 1978.
The replica, which takes days to unpack and assemble for display, draws crowds wherever it goes. Even Mr. Zweifel's father had to stand in line to see it when it first went on tour, prompting him to tell his son: "Well, maybe you've got something there."
In 1979, Mr. Zweifel took the exhibit to Arkansas, where then-Gov. Bill Clinton officiated at the opening.
"He was so energized just looking at it," Mr. Zweifel says. "He was only 34 then and he said, 'I'm going to live there one day.'
"Well, I don't know if I can take any credit for him ending up at the White House, but he did ask us a lot of questions," Mr. Zweifel jokes.
Actually, Mr. Zweifel hopes his creation stirs that same wish in every girl and boy who looks at the replica. "It is the people's house," he says. "And I want people to realize that they can live there."
TINY WHITE HOUSE
What: "White House Replica"
Where: Security Square Mall, Security Boulevard in Woodlawn. Take I-695 to exit 17. The main mall entrance or the Hecht's entrance are closest to the exhibit.
Time: Starting tomorrow, Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.