Camp David – The Presidential Retreat
By Donna K. Keesling
The president of the United States lives a very public life, especially when he is at the White House. Each moment of the president’s day is scheduled, and actions are observed and recorded. So where does the president go to get away from the hectic schedule and have time for contemplation and relaxation? President Herbert Hoover built a retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains. President Franklin D. Roosevelt retreated to the presidential yacht until it was deemed unsafe for him to be on the water during World War II. Since then, presidents have found security and solace in the Catoctin Mountains of western Maryland at the place we know as Camp David.
Camp David, officially a Navy installation named Naval Support Facility Thurmont, is located approximately sixty miles from Washington, D.C. It takes close to two and a half hours to travel there by car from the White House and only about thirty minutes via helicopter.
President Herbert Hoover was the first president to establish a presidential retreat – away from the busyness of Washington, D.C. Hoover bought 164 acres in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and built a retreat he named Rapidan in 1929. There were thirteen cabins, including the main house named “The Brown House,” and a meeting hall, kitchen, and buildings for the Secret Service. At Rapidan, the Hoovers entertained family members, friends, Cabinet officers, and politicians. During the visits they spent time hiking, horseback riding, fishing, and conversing. President Hoover also used the camp for private meetings with representatives of foreign governments. The Hoovers deeded Rapidan to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1932 for use as a summer retreat by future presidents. In December 1935, it officially became part of Shenandoah National Park. Three of the original buildings are still standing, including “The Brown House,” and can be visited by the public on ranger-led tours.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, who succeeded Hoover, did not like the muggy conditions at Rapidan and chose to spend his retreat time at his own home in Hyde Park, New York or on the presidential yacht named the USS Potomac. During World War II, it was deemed that the use of the USS Potomac by the president was too risky. In March 1942, National Park Service personnel began to search for a new presidential retreat location that would be close to Washington and at a high enough elevation so that it would be cool during the summer. The site that was selected was a federal employee family camp called Camp #3, also known as Hi-Catoctin, which was part of the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area Project that had been started in 1935 as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. President Roosevelt named the camp Shangri-La, after the fictional Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s novel titled Lost Horizon. It was officially christened the USS Shangri-La on July 5, 1942.
The next president to use Shangri-La was Harry Truman. Although Truman was not very fond of the camp and did not use it very often, he thought it was historically significant enough to make the camp and the Catoctin Recreational Area part of the National Park Service. He also added heat to many of Rapidan’s cabins which enabled year-round use of the camp.
It was President Dwight Eisenhower who changed the camp’s name to Camp David. Apparently, he thought the name Shangri-La was “too fancy” and decided to name it after his grandson.
The site comprises 180 acres. In addition to the twenty or so cabins, the camp includes a gym, chapel, health clinic, fire department, and maintenance buildings. The president’s cabin was originally called the Bear’s Den by President Roosevelt but was later renamed Aspen by President Eisenhower. Many of the other cabins are also named after species of trees and plants, including Laurel Lodge which contains three conference rooms, a dining room, and a small presidential office. During Eisenhower’s presidency, a hangar was built for Marine One, the helicopter that the president uses for transport between the White House and Camp David.
Recreational facilities include a bowling alley, horseshoe pits, driving range, putting green, basketball court, swimming pools, and skeet and artillery ranges. Recreational trails are available for walking and bicycling.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the construction of a chapel on the grounds of Camp David was begun. Until the completion of this chapel, presidents would venture down to Thurmont for services or bring clergy to camp to conduct services in the hangar or in one of the cabins. The octagonal shaped chapel is non-denominational, with stained-glass windows that depict the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life created by Rudolph Sandon. President George H. W. Bush dedicated Evergreen Chapel in April 1991.
The commanding officer (CO) at Camp David is a commander from the U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Corps. The camp is staffed, maintained, operated, and guarded by Sailors, Marines, and military personnel under the White House Military Office (WHMO). The CO lives on-site in one of the cabins called Cedar. Some additional staff live on-site; others live in the nearby town of Thurmont.
Throughout the years, presidents have used Camp David as a place to meet with foreign leaders. President Roosevelt hosted Winston Churchill and began planning for the 1944 D-Day invasion. President Eisenhower conducted negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to reduce Cold War tensions. In 1973, President Nixon hosted his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Brezhnev.
President Carter hosted negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978. During what later came to be known as the Camp David Accords, President Carter met with the two leaders to create an agreement that provided for peace between Egypt and Israel.
From Herbert Hoover through Joseph Biden, presidents have sought an escape from the hectic world of Washington, D.C. to a place where they have time to process current events, plan for the future, and meet with foreign dignitaries. Former CO, Michael Giorgione said it best – Camp David is a “getaway with a purpose, where the silent nights and mountain air can settle the weary soul of the leader of the free world.”
 “President Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover’s Rapidan Camp” National Park Service, accessed June 19, 2022, https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/presidents/hoover_camp_rapidan.html.
 Michael Giorgione, Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017), 26.
 Giorgione, 36.
 Giorgione, 4.
 “Camp David.” (George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum), https://www.georgewbushlibrary.gov/bush-family/presidential-places/camp-david.
 Giorgione, Inside Camp David: The Private World of the Presidential Retreat, 199.