Suite Dreams

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.

"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..."

At 55, Stewart considers himself the ideal man for the assignment. "Eisenhower was my first president," he says. "The first I remember, anyway. We were all concerned about that heart attack. I remember his doctor came on TV, which was new then, and was so reassuring. It's good they didn't get some 23-year-old who only remembers Reagan."

Eisenhower was no stranger to Colorado, and he routinely referred to the Denver area as the "Western White House." Mamie had grown up here, and the Eisenhowers were staying with her parents at 750 Lafayette Street when Ike suffered his heart attack. By then, he'd already been in the Rockies for a month, golfing, trout fishing and taking it easy.

"No president would get away with that in this day and age," Stewart says. "With Eisenhower, there was always plenty of R and R. But at the same time, he really did run the country from that bed. For one thing, no one was all that sure about his vice president, Richard Nixon, including Nixon himself."

Stewart learned that, and many other things, as he became infected with the project's collective Eisenhower obsession: "Mamie, let's say: She's a very interesting person. She's portrayed like all presidents' wives, smiling and supportive. There's also strong indications along the lines of a drinking problem. And she was jealous. She did not like pretty nurses working on Ike."

Mamie prevailed. Ike's nurses appear middle-aged, stern and uncomfortable in their military-issue pumps, at least in one photograph in Harris's collection.

"And look at this," she says, producing a shot of a zealous investigative-news team setting up a high-powered telescope on the Fitzsimons lawn. "You think the media are tough now? Nothing has changed."

Well, how about furniture?

"The '50s were a terrible era for furniture," she concedes. "I mean, look at this stuff. This sofa in the Secret Service room -- this is simply not attractive. And see? One of the nation's first recliners. This is the kind of stuff people put in their basements. This recliner was in my basement, but I got rid of it years ago."

Now she hopes to locate those precious Coloradans who haven't gotten around to cleaning their basements, which could house just the items she's looking for.

"Eisenhower's clip-on reading light," she suggests. "Vinyl side chairs. I thought this stuff would be cake, but it isn't. We even want to do his breakfast tray -- so what do you think? Are these doilies paper or real? I've heard real, but that was from an antique dealer who wanted to sell them. We'll need this fork. Then the issue becomes security. It's awful easy to walk off with a fork. But then, to put the whole tray in a locked case would ruin the feel."

Ignoring Mamie would do the same, so Harris has come up with a compromise. She'll continue to acquire First Lady-like fixtures -- a very early TV, velvety curtains and hey, maybe even a look-alike toilet seat.

"I'm not yet sure how," she admits. "But if we get any Mamie stuff, we're using it."

In the coming months, Robin Chotzinoff will commemorate Westword's 25th anniversary with 25 profiles of Denver today. Click here to read these stories.