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Truman's Key West days re-created

If the late Harry S Truman could stroll into the Little White House after the current restoration is complete, the museum's staff hopes the 33rd president would say: The old place hasn't changed one bit.

My desk. My piano. My poker table. My Colonial Plantation fabric.

For the meticulous project, the buck stops with museum executive director Robert Wolz, who said: "Our goal is 100 percent authenticity as it was in Truman's time. It may take years. It may never happen. But that's our goal for Florida's only presidential museum.''

John F. Kennedy's compound in West Palm Beach is closed to the public. Richard Nixon's Key Biscayne home was bulldozed in 2004 for new development.

But the Little White House, once abandoned for 12 years, has become one of Key West's most popular attractions, with about 65,000 visitors a year.

In 1990, the original $1 million restoration was completed, but there were inaccuracies. For example, the foyer's wallpaper has French scenes. During Truman's time, Miami architect Haygood Lassiteur picked a scene that was clearly American: old fashioned covered bridges and colonial homes.

From old black-and-white photos, the Scalamandre company of New York has recreated the wallpaper. Technological advances have made it economically possible to now handprint the small amount needed.

The ongoing second phase of the restoration takes the authenticity to the next level. No detail is too small.

From paint analysis under a microscope to reprinting antique oil paintings loaned from the U.S. Naval Academy to searching for the banana leaves fabric for the poker porch, Wolz is determined to make the seven-bedroom, 9,000-square foot home look exactly as it did in 1949.

That's the year the Navy, in just three months and with $95,000, renovated the place Bess Truman called a "fishing camp'' into a tropical retreat worthy of a sitting president.

The restoration is getting a boost from pure luck.

Wolz was at home browsing on eBay, he says, when something in his head told him to click on plantation floral fabric.

"I said, 'Wow, that looks like the Little White House fabric,'" he recalled. "I sent the picture to work and it matched'' the 16 dining room chairs and the living room's drapes and couch. "I think it was probably one in a million even to find it.''

Another bit of luck: About a year ago, a longtime Key West resident showed up with a battered chair that had been sitting on her porch for years. Her husband had "saved it'' from the Little White House while it was abandoned. That chair goes with the six others around the poker table, which got plenty of use by Truman.

Ken Hechler, 93, a speechwriter and aid for Truman, said the president invited candidates for Cabinet and executive positions to join the poker gang: "He would advise members of his staff to rib the hell out of the guy to see if he's got a thick enough skin to withstand the barbs of the Washington press corps.''

The house was built in 1890 by the Navy and was used by commandants of the submarine base and their families. It became empty when a bachelor commandant decided it was too big.

In 1947, Truman's physician told him he needed a warm, relaxing place to recover from a nagging cold and exhaustion. The vacant home on naval property was perfect. Truman fell in love with the southernmost city, spending 175 days of his presidency here.

Five other presidents also have used the house: William Howard Taft, Dwight Eisenhower, Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell used the home for peace talks between the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan.

"This house deserves this kind of restoration,'' Wolz said. "The chance of us having a sitting president is slim now because we are surrounded by residences and no longer a secure Navy base. But we probably will continue to get past presidents.''

For about $200, Wolz bought two Staffordshire collectible ceramic dogs on eBay that matched ones in old Truman photographs. A Key West importer is trying to find the 16-piece Lenox china place settings that were used.

"And to show how crazy this gets, we had an elderly woman visitor come into the museum and ask why we had Japanese frames,'' Wolz said. "She was a friend of Margaret Truman and said her family was the official framers to the White House. We were able to perfectly match the frames.''

Historic paint consultant Matthew Mosca spent a week at the Little White House gathering 150 paint samples. After analysis, he determined that many walls were not a bluish cool gray as thought but more of a warm gray, almost beige, which was popular after World War II.

The current restoration suffered a setback this year when the state Legislature did not come through with $150,000 approved for humidity-controlled air conditioning.

Although the state owns the registered historic site, it is financed and maintained by a private nonprofit foundation. Wolz said the money now will have to be borrowed, because the painting, wallpapering and upholstering can not begin until there is new air conditioning.

"It's already a wonderful site,'' said Mosca, who also worked on the U.S. Capitol and George Washington's Mount Vernon home. ``Once they get the refinements that can now be done, it will be one of the most accurate historic restorations.''