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The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of FDR's Floating White House

While many U.S. presidents enjoyed the services of a yacht, the most famous of those boats is the USS Potomac, the yacht that provided a refuge for Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1936 to 1945. The Coast Guard cutter was built to intercept bootleggers during Prohibition, but then was determined to be a good fit for Roosevelt. And so it was refitted with features to accommodate the president, and the president's wheelchair.

The biggest change was to install a spacious, shaded aft deck, where Roosevelt could work or entertain while enjoying river or ocean breezes. “When the ship was a Coast Guard cutter, this deck did not exist,” Dropkin says, as we walk across its teak surface, “but it was a favorite area of the president.” That’s probably because the seating on the deck was designed with the wheelchair-bound Roosevelt in mind. Dropkin points to an upholstered settee that follows the curve of the ship’s stern. “It’s about 4 feet deep in the middle,” he says, “to support the president’s legs, something for him to stretch out on. You can almost imagine him sitting there, drink in hand.

“Roosevelt was a martini guy,” Dropkin continues. “A good cocktail was very important to him. He had started having cocktail hour when he was governor of New York, and brought the practice with him to the White House. His wife, Eleanor, wasn’t crazy about that, but they were different people."

Other changes to the Electra that were more particular to Roosevelt included the removal of the floor coamings designed to contain water that might be sloshing on deck. For example, the low barrier was removed between the main dining room and the presidential bedroom, so that Roosevelt could get himself between the two spaces in his wheelchair. Even more dramatic was the conversion of one of the ship’s two smokestacks into an elevator, allowing the president to move freely between to ship’s two main decks. “An elevator was built into what had been the rear smokestack,” Dropkin says. “It’s an electric elevator now, but when the president used it, it was literally just a platform roped to a pulley. He would pull himself up, or let himself down, arm over arm. Roosevelt was very strong, and always wanted to do things for himself.”

After Roosevelt's death, the Potomac went on many other adventures, such as the ill-fated trip to the World's Fair, a purchase by Elvis Presley, drug-running, and a sinking. But the Potomac is getting ready for a new life as a landmark. Read the entire story of the USS Potomac at Collectors Weekly.  

(Image credit: Christopher J. Wood)

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