Suite Dreams

The Eisenhower era returns to room 6044.

Think you need Mamie Eisenhower's pink toilet seat? Think again.

"It's in Abilene's hands," says architect Karen Harris, referring, of course, to the Army Medical Department Museum in that Texas town. "They say lending us that seat would not be appropriate, and sometimes they act like they don't even have it. But they do."

In fact, Mamie's toilet seat is listed as number 508 on the museum's inventory list. Could such a zealously catalogued item ever be exhibited with proper reverence? Perhaps, but after two years of trying to get Texas to extradite the seat, Harris isn't waiting around. The restoration of the hospital room once occupied by President Dwight Eisenhower has already taken twice as long as it should have, and many historic artifacts are still missing.

Presidential posse: Ike and his attendants.
Presidential posse: Ike and his attendants.

"Endless avenues remain open to us," Harris says, with a touch of exhaustion.

Recognizing the room's historic importance, powers that be at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, which is moving into what had been Fitzsimons Army Hospital, decided the time was right to recognize the VIP suite that was occupied by ailing military brass before the hospital closed. And no VIP was brassier than General Eisenhower, who suffered a heart attack in September 1955 and ran the country from room 6044 of Fitzsimons for the next seven weeks. Not about to abandon their leader, his wife, the Secret Service and much of the White House press corps also camped out there.

With a grant from the Colorado Historic Fund, Harris and designer Lisa Gallun set out to renovate the space into a museum devoted not just to history, but to health care. This is why Harris's conference table, located in her small Capitol Hill office, is covered with Eisenhower-era nurse call buttons, glass ashtrays, ugly lamps and dangerously wired wall outlets.

"This is our little Eisenhower world," she explains.

The big Eisenhower world is far out on East Colfax Avenue, on the eighth floor of the former hospital, which is now known as "historic building 500." The beautiful, ghostly Fitzsimons lobby gleams with plated-steel details -- caduceus-themed railings, silvery mailbox chutes and curved wall moldings. A state-of-the-art-moderne elevator leads past floors unoccupied since 1995 and now in various stages of demolition -- including abandoned operating rooms on the sixth, where it looks like a crew of violent surgeons joined in one last melee before they left for good.

Those rooms have been a gold mine for Larry McHale, the carpenter working on the Eisenhower restoration. As he unwraps 6044's many layers of '70s and '80s remodels, he will need a hinge, say, or a handle. Roaming around the other floors, he usually finds what he needs.

"There's a lot of cool stuff down there, but it's freaky, and I don't like it," he admits. "I hear it's haunted."

Only Eisenhower's bathroom fixtures -- porcelain behemoths dating to 1941, when the hospital was built -- had maintained their integrity. McHale removed acoustic tile, raised ceilings, exposed classic linoleum and combed the ruins for a 1940s wall locker. Today, he's returning the walls to a '50s-era buttery yellow.

"It's pretty much constant," he says. "I'm only thirty, so I don't remember the guy, but I like the work."

Mitzi Schindler, spokeswoman for CU Health Sciences Center, is pleased with the progress on the centerpiece of what will be an administration building. "It's not all that fancy," she says, "but Ike was a military man. He didn't expect frills."

Like Harris, Schindler has pored over a series of black-and-white photos taken for the military archives immediately after the president's departure. Those pictures show the suite in perfect order, complete with fresh flowers from admirers. (The largest arrangement came from the King of Siam.)

"But how are you supposed to know what color stuff is?" Schindler complains. "Like these ugly curtains. You can tell they're complicated, but what color? We're hoping people out there might remember. Before I realized how important that kind of thing is, I had a woman come through here who said she had those same drapes at her house. My first thought was, 'I can't believe she'd admit that.' I didn't beg her to donate them, and that got me in some trouble."

The Eisenhower restoration has expanded to include the Secret Service sitting room, a nurse's station and a private dining room. Plans to fix up Mamie's room (now stuffed with desks) were scrapped, but only reluctantly -- the Army had sprinkled her quarters with touches of the First Lady's favorite pink, hoping to make her feel more feminine in a rigidly masculine world. Instead, the project's trying to find hospital staffers who received some of the gifts Mamie handed out when she left.

"Both the Eisenhowers were extremely good at taking care of people," says John Stewart, a lawyer/historian currently researching the project. "We've found a man who still has the big bottle of perfume Mamie gave him for his wife. Apparently, the perfume came from a nightclub owner in New York, who was very patriotic. Our source, Red Dozier, did all Eisenhower's blood work. He's given us a bootleg slide of Ike's blood. If we could just find a few more like him..."

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