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Jeff Houck

The Tampa Tribune’s food writer since 2005, Jeff Houck covers the way people live through their food. He also hosts the Table Conversations food podcast and believes that everything crunchy is good.

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Off Topic: Finding Patriotism In Clermont, Fla. [Rummaging Through The Presidents Hall of Fame]

Posted Nov 12, 2012 by Jeff Houck

Updated Nov 12, 2012 at 09:29 AM

The Presidents Hall of Fame

Every two weeks, I write a non-food column called Counter Points for the Tampa Tribune about how the issues of the day affect people who live in and around Tampa. This column ran in today’s edition:

* * * *

CLERMONT - Patriotism isn’t dead. You can still find it all over John Zweifel’s Presidents Hall of Fame.

First, go through the front door of the colonial-style building off State Road 27, past the fake Mount Rushmore and around the faux Lincoln Memorial.

That puts you at the gift shop entrance, where the Rudy Giuliani souvenir magnets and bins of campaign buttons featuring the smiling faces of Richard Milhous Nixon and Spiro Theodore Agnew are sold next to the George W. Bush fortunetelling booth.

Next to the cashier’s desk where docent Barbara Morris takes admission, a dining room table is decorated to look as if a formal state dinner is about to be served, complete with replica White House china. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush stand nearby in mannequin form. Honest Abe Lincoln stands behind them savior-style on an elevated pedestal, giving off a contemplative stare.

Once inside the first room of the museum, you feel as if you’ve fallen into an episode of “Presidential Hoarders.” To the left is a showcase of recent political conventions, including signs and trinkets from the Republican National Convention in Tampa and the Democratic version in Charlotte. To the right, there’s a ballot box and voting booth used in Palm Beach County during the infamous 2000 election, and an epic 28-by-14-foot replica of the White House under construction, complete with Aquila Creek sandstone from the Executive Mansion.

The Presidents Hall of Fame

A couple of steps farther and you’ll see copies of Lincoln’s death masks. A makeshift theater in front of a large-screen TV shows behind-the-scenes details of life in the White House. Surrounding the seats, James K. Polk, Ulysses S. Grant and more than a dozen other presidential mannequins look down on the audience in stony silence.

The Presidents Hall of Fame

But the awe-inspiring showstopper is in the next room: A 60-foot-long miniature White House, complete with historically accurate furnishings. That includes flat screens in the West Wing, exact-match wallpaper used by Michelle Obama in the Oval Office and an insanely detailed replica of the State Dining Room, circa 1962.

Presidents Hall of Fame

Artifacts of life in The People’s House ring the room’s perimeter. Caroline Kennedy’s bedroom dresser stands across the room from a replica of the Resolute Desk, where President Barack Obama is posed near Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a wheelchair.

The Presidents Hall of Fame

Adjacent to that is a case with dozens of sets of White House china. One glance makes something abundantly clear: Millard Fillmore, with his plates covered with birds and flowers, had terrible taste.

The replica has toured the world since 1975, visiting all 50 states and drawing more than 50 million viewers. It took Zweifel and his wife, Jan, more than 600,000 hours of research and miniaturization work to build the model over more than three decades. The attention to detail is so acute, Steven Spielberg’s production company recently used models created by Zweifel to recreate authentic sets for his upcoming movie “Lincoln.”

The Presidents Hall of Fame

It was labor Zweifel gladly undertook. As a child growing up during World War II, he saw the country come together under a common cause. He fed off the resulting wave of American pride at having defeated the Axis powers. He channeled that passion for country and a love of making models into what became the White House in Miniature.

The Presidents Hall of Fame is the kind of tourist attraction Florida was known for before the interstate highway system diverted tourists from places like the Aquatarium on St. Pete Beach, Six Gun Territory in Ocala and the Honey Bee Observatory in Fort Myers. Back before Interstate 4 became the direct artery between Tampa and Orlando, U.S. 27 was the preferred path. That explains why places like the Presidents Hall of Fame, 26 miles north of the interstate, now seem as if they’re stuck in the middle of nowhere. Not even 226-foot Citrus Tower next door draws the crowds it did in the 1950s and ’60s, before Mickey Mouse conquered Florida. People once came to look out over endless rows of orange trees. Now the tower stands in the middle of homes and condos.

Being off the main path hasn’t deterred Zweifel’s big plans. He wants to build three more buildings to showcase his presidential collection, only 10 percent of which is at the hall. The rest is in storage near Orlando International Airport. He needs more space to show off full-size replicas of bedrooms and offices on Air Force One.

But that takes money. And money is hard to come by lately.

Touring school groups bring in cash, along with a small stream of visitors and an online souvenir store, but the not-for-profit museum is facing a bigger threat: apathy.

The past two years saw a dramatic drop in attendance as American politics became polarized along party lines. Zweifel’s exhibit is nonpartisan — “I wear red-white-and-blue underwear,” he says — but that doesn’t stop people from voicing their opinions. Sitting behind the front counter where a handful of Mitt Romney buttons are for sale, Morris says visitors occasionally harangue her with their strident opinions. She smiles and nods and does her best to maintain composure.

Presidents Hall of Fame

The museum’s official posture is to remain neutral and to celebrate the heritage of the office. They asked for souvenirs from the local Obama and Romney campaigns (only Romney’s staff complied.) Fairness is such a strong goal that an Obama figure they posed sitting on a bench out front was moved inside.

“People said it was disrespectful to leave him out in the rain,” she says.

State fairs, home shows and world’s fairs called all the time to beg for the White House to visit. Those phone calls have dropped off since Obama took office.

“These places don’t feel that right now is good timing for it,” Zweifel says. “It never was like that that before. What could be better for a home show than The People’s Home?”

Zweifel is 76 now and lives in Orlando. He won’t be around in 2076 to see the country’s 300th birthday the way he was for the 200th, but he’s making plans for the miniature White House anyway. There are rooms to build, artifacts to display. He knows how bringing people closer to the White House and seeing it with their own eyes — even in miniature form — can change the way Americans see their own country.

“Everyone used to have their hand over their heart,” he says. “It was all hope and prayers and happiness forever. We haven’t lost it, but the spirit people had back then, of people pulling together as a nation, they just need to be reminded. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Patriotism isn’t dead. It’s just a short drive away.

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