By Jeremy Hileman, Assistant Curator
With numerous world-class tourist destinations located throughout Central Florida, it may be easy to forget that visitors flocked to the area prior to the emergence of the theme parks that so many associate with the region today. A number of notable attractions predated the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort in 1971, and while many of them have since closed, a handful remain in operation. One such local gem is the Presidents Hall of Fame on U.S. Highway 27 in Clermont.
In 1956, partners A.W. Thacker and Jack Toole officially opened the Florida Citrus Tower, a 226-foot-tall structure with a top floor created to give guests a view of Lake County’s orange groves. By 1964, Toole had built a new project on the property, the House of Presidents, which became a destination in its own right. Fittingly located inside a building designed to resemble the White House, the museum’s primary draw was a display of detailed wax sculptures of each of the United States presidents. The collection then consisted of 36 figures, including one representing Lyndon B. Johnson, the current commander-in-chief at the time.
The House of Presidents proved successful and remained in operation under the original concept until the 1990s, when John and Jan Zweifel purchased it. John Zweifel had been creating miniatures of historic sites since childhood; after his marriage to Jan in 1959, the couple built a business that crafted Christmas displays for major department stores in Chicago and other cities, as well as exhibits for various clients. They moved to Central Florida in the 1970s. As the new owners of the House of Presidents, the Zweifels added a massive scale model of the White House that became the museum’s new centerpiece. They also gave the attraction a new name – the Presidents Hall of Fame – to mark their expanded concept.
The Zweifels’ mammoth 60-foot, highly detailed model White House was a welcome addition that brought in a new wave of sightseers. The model itself has been displayed in all 50 states, on a tour before finding its permanent home in Florida and during occasional loans after it became part of the Clermont museum. Visitors can even view personal letters from former presidents and first ladies commenting on how much they admire the effort and care that went into the Zweifels’ creation.
Sadly, both John and Jan Zweifel passed away in 2020. Though the loss left a huge void, both in the community and at the museum itself, the business is still in the family and remains open under the direction of the couple’s children.
Today, visitors can still see the famous White House, as well as many other presidential-themed artifacts and displays, ranging from presidential china to campaign memorabilia to a nod to Mount Rushmore located just outside the main entrance. The museum also features an impressive gift shop with some truly unique items for anyone seeking a souvenir to commemorate the experience. Still situated adjacent to the iconic Citrus Tower, the House of Presidents survives as an example of a fun roadside-attraction of Florida’s yesteryear that is more than worthy of a visit.