WASHINGTON — Franklin D. Roosevelt called it Shangri-La and headed there on hot, steamy Washington weekends to work on his stamp collection and relieve the pressures of World War II.
Winston Churchill met secretly with Roosevelt there in May 1943 to talk military strategy and lay the groundwork for the Normandy invasion. President Eisenhower met there in 1959 with Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, who feared it was "a place where people who were mistrusted were kept in quarantine."
Ike also golfed there, John F. Kennedy's children romped and rode ponies, Ronald and Nancy Reagan rode horseback, and Jimmy Carter learned how to fly-fish.
Yet Camp David is best known as the setting for the landmark peace agreement forged two decades ago between Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt under the watchful eye of Carter.
That summit led to an embrace between the two Mideast leaders--and former enemies--on the South Lawn of the White House. The outcome, known as the Camp David accords, won Begin and Sadat the Nobel Peace Prize.
In what some are calling Camp David II, President Clinton will welcome Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to the retreat today for a summit that officials say is modeled after the Begin-Sadat conference in September 1978.
Nestled in the Catoctin Mountains near Thurmont, Md., about an hour's drive northwest of Washington and a 20-minute helicopter ride from the White House, the presidential getaway was opened in 1938 as a summer camp for federal government workers and their families. Called Hi-Catoctin, it housed just a few rustic cabins.
Roosevelt's doctors, concerned about the president's health, advised White House officials to find a location near Washington where the president could escape the oppressive summer heat. The search led them to Hi-Catoctin.
Roosevelt re-christened the camp Shangri-La. The name came from "Lost Horizon," the 1933 James Hilton novel about an Asian mountain utopia totally removed from the war and turmoil of the outside world.
In 1953, Eisenhower renamed it after his father and his grandson and upgraded it.
Run by the Navy and guarded by the Marines, the presidential retreat and military installation occupies 125 acres at an elevation of 1,800 feet amid oak, poplar, ash, locust, hickory and maple trees.
During the 1978 peace talks, a sort of cabin diplomacy evolved at Camp David. According to Carter's former press secretary, Jody Powell, Sadat and Begin rarely met face to face because "Carter decided very early that the chemistry between them was not good, and it was not helpful having the two together." Carter traipsed back and forth between their cabins carrying drafts of proposals.
The relaxed atmosphere served the peace talks well.
"In the evening, we would all watch movies together," Powell recalled. "I remember shooting skeet with the Egyptian and Israeli security guys."
Camp David's other amenities include a heated swimming pool, a three-hole golf course, a movie theater, tennis courts and fishing.
Of all the presidents, Reagan used the retreat most. During his eight years in office, Reagan and his wife stayed there 571 days.
Clinton spent the first weekend of this month at Camp David. A week ago Monday, after placing phone calls to Arafat and Barak from the camp and meeting with his Middle East team there, he decided to host the summit at the Maryland retreat.
White House spokesman P. J. Crowley said Clinton hopes the symbolism of the location will inspire all parties.
"There are artifacts, pictures and notes from the meeting 22 years ago," Crowley said. "I am sure that during the course of the summit, the president will have a chance to remind Barak and Arafat of the history of Camp David and the potential that leaders can come together, overcome differences and reach historic agreements."