PRESIDENTS’ OUTSIZED AND MYTHIFIED STATURE as people and interpreters-in-chief of America makes for interesting terrestrial manifestations, where their personal identity and legacy emanates from a place, a kind of presidential terroir. Last fall, anticipating impending changes to the nation’s presidentscape, the Center for Land Use Interpretation developed a research program on the subject, which culminated in the exhibit Executive Decisions: The Personal Landscape Legacy of American Presidents, shown at the Center’s Los Angeles exhibit space until a few weeks after the election in November.
Starting with George Washington’s Mount Vernon, rescued from ruin and restored by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association decades after the nation’s first president died in 1799, each ex-presidency has established a place where their heart, story, and often even their mortal remains resides.
One of the curious elements of presidential place-making is the way many of the early homes of the presidents have been memorialized, often dissolving, re-forming, and moving around in very un-house-like ways. They are domestic monuments on a quest for the authentic that is often epic, but which just as often eludes the legacy of these larger than life historic figures. Let’s explore some of the shifting grounds of presidential homes.
Presidents #1 - 6: Unreal Estates of our Founding Fathers
George Washington, America’s first president, was born in 1732 at his family’s tobacco plantation in Virginia. In 1779, long after he had moved away, the house he was born in burned down. By then it had been expanded into a mansion known as Wakefield, and was owned by Washington’s nephew. In 1931, a gift from John D. Rockefeller Jr. helped to restore and preserve the site in time for Washington’s 200th birthday. A house was constructed to represent the original birthplace house, sited on what was thought to be the original cellar hole. Though the original house was known to have been made of wood, the replica house was made of brick, for some reason. Archeologists later discovered that the original house site was a hundred feet away, and the cellar that the size and shape of the replica was based on was an outbuilding of some kind, possibly a barn. So now the replica house is called the Memorial House.
In 1738, Washington’s family moved to a plantation near Fredericksburg, Virginia. The plantation became known as Ferry Farm, as it was used later as a ferry crossing point on the Rappahannock River. George Washington lived here from the age of six to his teenage years, along with his brothers and sisters.
Two hundred years later, many of the childhood myths of George Washington were manifested here for tourists. A structure known as the Surveyors Shed reminded visitors that it was here that Washington learned surveying (which became his trade) though the structure came from a later farmstead. The fable of Washington cutting down the cherry tree is set here too, and for years there was a plaque in front of a stump, even though the story was known to have been made up by a writer, Mason Locke Weems.
The landscape of myth at Ferry Farm is giving way to scientific archeology now. In 2008, the original Washington house site was discovered, and a reconstruction at that location is currently being built. The reconstructed house is designed to structurally float above the ground, so as not to disturb the archeologically hallowed earth beneath it.
★ ★ ★
Two adjacent ancient houses in Quincy, south of Boston, stand out as anachronistic anomalies, battered and vacant, on a busy street across from a diner and a funeral home. The unoccupied houses, more than 350 years old, were the birthplaces and childhood homes of two presidents, John Adams, president #2, and John Quincy Adams, president #6.
When they lived there, in the 1700s, this was rural farmland on the old coast road between Plymouth and Boston. The houses were immersed in historic events, with revolutionary soldiers marching past, and the Constitution of Massachusetts, which preceded the US Constitution, written inside by John Adams, Samuel Adams, and other patriots. Over the years the farmland was divided into lots, and urban sprawl flowed around them. In 1896, the houses, still owned by descendants, were adopted by historical organizations, and turned into preserved landmarks. Restorations included raising the houses and the ground a few feet, to catch up with the roads and sidewalks that had grown up around them. Though now managed by the National Park Service, the houses still seem frail and beached.
★ ★ ★
Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in a farmhouse built by his father at Shadwell, one of a number of plantations owned by his extended family. He inherited Shadwell on his 21st birthday, in 1764, and it continued to be his home until the house burned down in 1770, destroying his first library, records about the house, and all but his fiddle, they say. After the fire Jefferson moved to a hillside nearby, where he had already started building his dream home, Monticello (little mountain). By the early 1900s, Shadwell had returned to being sheep and cow pasture.
In 1945, the Jefferson Birthplace Memorial Park Commission was established to develop the location into a Jefferson historical site. A historical investigator, known for his work locating the site of Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, was hired, and the original foundation of the Shadwell house was thought to have been discovered. A replica house was built at the location in 1961, filled with antiques, and opened to the public. But two years later, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, owners of Monticello, took possession of the site and shut it down, claiming that the house was not historically accurate. The house was sold and moved off the site. Later archeological work at Shadwell determined the location and footprint of the original house, but there are no plans for any reconstructions, or to open the site to the public. A granite monument erected by the St. Louis Historical Society on Jefferson’s birthday in 1926, 100 years after his death, the only monument commemorating his birthplace, sits alone in a grove of trees, behind a locked gate.
★ ★ ★
James Monroe, last of the Founding Fathers presidents, was born in 1758 at a plantation in a house built by his father, five miles up the Potomac River from George Washington’s birthplace. Monroe lived there until 1774, when he left for college. After the war, Monroe opened a law practice in Fredericksburg, and sold his land, including his birthplace, in 1783. It changed hands many times since then, and the house slowly fell down, then disappeared completely, as the land became a local dumping ground.
Starting in 1923, some of his descendants led efforts to develop and preserve the birthplace. These and other early attempts generally failed. The foundation of the house was discovered in the 1970s, and the National Park Service was approached, but declined to get involved. A historic marker was erected in 1987, adding to brickwork, a roadway, and other improvements. Wooden posts marked the house mound, and a marker put in the middle of the house site was dedicated in 1989.
In 2005 a memorial foundation was given a 99-year lease on the property, and in 2008 a small visitor center was opened. Inside is a model of the original house, which there are hopes to reconstruct at full scale on the site, someday.
In 1793, James Monroe, who later became the fifth president of the United States, and his wife purchased 1,000 acres next to Monticello, and eventually amassed a 3,500-acre plantation called Highland. Though they owned other properties as well, this was their principal residence from 1799 to 1823. Subsequent owners called it Ash Lawn, and opened it to the public in 1931. It was donated to the College of William and Mary in 1974, which has operated it as a historic site since then. Recent excavations led to an announcement, in 2015, that the existing house, carefully restored and thought to have been the Monroe’s primary residence, was actually likely just a guest house. A much larger foundation was uncovered in front of it from a building which probably had burned down after the Monroes sold the property. The history of the place is now being rewritten.
Presidents #7 - 15: Log Cabins and Pyramids
Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the USA, was the first president to be born in a log cabin, and two locations claim to be the site of that cabin. One is located near Waxhaw, North Carolina, where a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution first built a monument in 1858, on what was believed to be the base of the original home’s chimney. The other is two miles away, in South Carolina, where a monument erected by another local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution claims this as the site of the log cabin Jackson was born in. This monument was erected in 1928, weighs three tons, and has a much more specific claim of authenticity carved into it, citing Jackson’s statement that he was born at his Uncle James Crawford’s farm, which was located around here. To further assert his South Carolinian origins, the state established the Andrew Jackson State Park around the birthplace monument in 1953. A log cabin-y museum and visitor center were built, as well as other rustic recreations, such as an imagined log cabin school like the one he might have attended in the area. Part of the uncertainty is due to the fact that the border between North and South Carolina was not fully established until the 1800s.
Andrew Jackson’s home for much of his life was a Greek Revival mansion he called the Hermitage, outside Nashville. It is now an established tourist attraction complete with his museum, and tomb. He purchased the acreage for the Hermitage in 1804, and moved there with his wife, living initially in a log house which has been reconstructed at the site. When the Jacksons moved to the main house, completed in 1819, the two-story log structure was converted into two single-story log buildings, and used to house his slaves. During his two terms as president, from 1829-1837, he had the house expanded and improved, and returned to it in retirement, dying there in 1845. Jackson left the estate to his adopted son, whose family lived there until 1887. Two years later, an organization of prominent Nashville women were granted ownership of the plantation in order to preserve it, and open it to the public. This group, the Ladies Hermitage Association, was modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, who had successfully taken over George Washington’s home in 1858. The Ladies Hermitage Association still owns and operates the Hermitage plantation, and manages the local legacy of the nation’s first “log cabin” president.
★ ★ ★
The three presidential successors to Jackson’s “log cabin” presidency (Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler) came from Tidewater or Hudson River gentry, but the 11th president, James Polk, was born in a log cabin (though a large one) on his father’s 150-acre cotton farm in Pineville, North Carolina, in 1795. The family moved to Tennessee in 1806, when James was 11, and they sold the property a few years later. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the first commemoration on the site in 1904. Their pyramidal pile was later moved to accommodate the construction of a replica of the original cabin, part of a state-funded park established to honor Polk. The cabin was reconstructed from a brief description made by a public official who had visited the site in 1849, and they used logs from an old cabin found a few miles away.
★ ★ ★
Millard Fillmore, the nation’s 13th president, was born in 1800 in a log cabin near the current town of Summerhill, in the Finger Lakes district of upstate New York. Two years later his family lost their land due to a defective title, and settled in the town of New Hope. A few decades later the cabin was torn down and used as firewood. The place remained forgotten until 1931, when it was identified to the local historical society by an elderly gentleman who remembered it from a childhood visit. He indicated the exact cabin location, and a state historical marker was erected along the road. Later, a roadside park was established by a local historical society, and the location of the cabin was further delineated. In 2003, the Nucor Steel Corporation, which has one of its mills in the region, built a pavilion at the site (after plans to build a museum in nearby Moravia fell through). The site is on Fillmore Road—which is still a remote place.
Five miles west from Millard Fillmore’s birthplace is the town of Moravia, and the entrance to Fillmore Glen State Park. Inside the park is a replica of the birthplace cabin in Summerhill. The replica was built in 1965 by the Millard Fillmore Historical Association, using wood from another old cabin located three miles away. It was restored recently by volunteers, and is furnished with recreated and period artifacts.
As a young adult, Millard Fillmore studied law, then established a practice in East Aurora, a town south of Buffalo, where, in 1826, he built a house. He and his wife lived in this house for four years. The house was originally on Main Street (where the movie theater is now) and by the early 1900s, it was in disrepair. In 1930, the main portion of the house was purchased by Margaret Evans Price, and moved to a side street, for use as an art studio. That year Margaret, who was an artist and illustrator of children’s books, and her husband, who was the town’s mayor, formed a toy company called Fisher-Price. Lithographs of characters from her children’s books were produced in her studio and applied to wood block pull toys at the factory in town. Bankrolled by her husband, who was a former executive at Woolworths, the company grew quickly. The headquarters are still a few blocks away. Fisher-Price went plastic in the 1950s, and made preschool versions of miniature airports, parking garages, and barns. It is now owned by toy giant Mattel. In 1975, the local historical society acquired Millard Fillmore’s house from the Price family, and restored it to its 1826 appearance as best they could. It was opened to the public, and is the only museum dedicated to the president.
★ ★ ★
Franklin Pierce, 14th president of the United States, was born in a log cabin in 1804, in Hillsborough, New Hampshire, at a site that is now under the waters of a reservoir called Lake Franklin Pierce. His father was a prominent citizen who served with George Washington during the Revolutionary War, and later became a government surveyor dispatched to the region. He ended up owning several hundred acres here (not all of which are under the lake). When Franklin Pierce was born, the seventh of nine children, the cabin was just their temporary home while they waited for their large house in town to be finished. He was a log cabin occupant for just a few weeks of his infancy.
In 1838, Franklin Pierce and his wife moved from Hillsborough to Concord, 20 miles away, and bought a Greek Revival-style house at 18 Montgomery Street, where they lived from 1842 to 1848. In the late 1960s, the Housing Authority wanted the land as part of an aggressive urban renewal plan for downtown Concord, and the house was initially considered to not have enough historical value to be saved. The Pierce house was moved to a new location, in a designated “historic area,” in 1971. The historical organization known as the Pierce Brigade continued to raise money to restore the house at its new location, and turn it into a museum celebrating Franklin Pierce, the only president from New Hampshire. The house is open to the public seasonally, and has displays about Pierce, as well as restored period rooms, and a gift shop.
Though the relocated and preserved “manse” was the only house he ever owned in town, the principal events in his life occurred elsewhere, particularly at a house he lived in at 52 South Main Street, which is no longer there. He was living here when he heard about his election to the presidency, in 1852, and where he returned to live, after his presidency. These were not happy times, though. Shortly after his election to the presidency, his family was in a train accident in Amherst, New Hampshire, and their 11 year old son was killed in a gruesome way, witnessed by both parents. This was even more tragic, as he was their last surviving child—their other two boys had died a few years earlier. His wife Jane never recovered, and didn’t even join her husband on his inaugural trip to Washington. He returned to this house in Concord after a controversial presidency that linked him with the pro-slavery south. They traveled to Europe for a while, Jane died in 1863, and he sank further into alcohol. He died in the house in 1869 at the age of 64, of cirrhosis of the liver. In 1981, the house, recently recognized officially as a historic site, mysteriously caught fire and burned to the ground. Franklin Pierce is buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord.
★ ★ ★
James Buchanan, the nation’s 15th president, was born in a log cabin in 1791 at Stony Batter, his parents’ frontier trading post at Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, now inside Buchanan’s Birthplace State Park. The site is still remote and rural, and has a considerable amount of interpretation describing conditions here at that time, his presidency, and how his family moved to nearby Mercersburg to run a store when he was six. When they left Stony Batter, the property was purchased by a local family, and remained in private hands until 1906, when it was purchased by a trust, executing the last wishes of James Buchanan’s niece, Harriet Rebecca Lane. Harriet’s parents died when she was 11 years old, and James Buchanan became her guardian. He never married, and when he was in the White House, she served as his first lady, arranging social activities, doing humanitarian work, and guarding his legacy. She died in 1903, leaving $100,000 to a trust to make two memorials to her beloved uncle. One is a statue in Washington DC, and the other is here, in the form of a pyramid. The construction of the 31 foot-tall pyramid involved 35 men, and required building a small railroad to move 300 tons of material to the site. In 1911, after construction was completed by the trust and its assigned architects, the entire 18.5-acre property was donated to the state, making it the smallest park in the state park system.
Buchanan’s birthplace cabin, which once stood where the pyramid is now, has its own curious traveling tale. The cabin was purchased by a local businessman in 1850, before Buchanan became president. He removed it from the site at Stony Batter, and reconstructed it in town to use as a workshop. It eventually was expanded, and turned into a home that was rented out. In 1925, the structure, by then in some disrepair, was purchased by another local businessman, who moved it 20 miles to a lot he owned in Chambersburg. A bronze plaque explained its origins, and over the next 30 years it was variously used as a gift shop, Girl Scouts headquarters, antique shop, museum, and Democratic Party headquarters, before it was moved again, leaving an empty lot. In 1953, the cabin was purchased for $300 by Mercersburg Academy, a prep school in town, and moved to campus, where it remains, for now.
President #16: Lincoln's Logs
In 1808, Abraham Lincoln’s father bought a property called Sinking Spring Farm, and built a cabin next to the spring, where his son, Abraham was born a year later. The property is now a National Historical Park with a visitor center about the revered 16th president of the USA. The main feature at the site is a Romanesque memorial, with 56 steps, one for each year of the president’s life, built on the location of his original birthplace cabin. Inside the structure is his birthplace cabin—which, however, is not really the actual birthplace cabin. Though not the original one, the cabin’s journey to this site is an odyssey worthy of a lavish classical shrine.
The Lincoln family moved to another farm two years after he was born, and it is likely that the original log cabin was burned up for firewood by subsequent owners, probably in the 1830s. Another log structure was built on the site, and later moved and reused elsewhere. By the 1860s, with Lincoln in the White House, and the Civil War raging, the importance of this historic president’s birthplace and cabin was attracting interest. Federal efforts to acquire the birthplace faltered, and in 1894, it was bought by a New York restaurant chain owner and missionary, Alfred Dennett, with plans to develop it into a tourist attraction. Dennett acquired a cabin that locals claimed was the original cabin, removed from the site years ago. He also purchased the alleged birthplace cabin of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, then took the two cabins on the road, showing them side by side at fairs and expositions, assembling and disassembling them over and over.
By 1904, though, Dennett was in financial ruin, and committed to an insane asylum. The birthplace was auctioned off in 1905, and purchased by the publisher of Collier’s Weekly, with the intent of preserving it and opening it to the public, in a proper way. The birthplace cabin, pieces of which by then were mixed up with Jefferson Davis’ cabin, consisted of around 200 logs, a door, a window, and some floorboards, in storage in a basement in New York, after being displayed for the last time at Coney Island. Collier’s group purchased it from its current owner for $1,000, and the pieces were eventually transported back to the Kentucky birthplace, with much ceremony, draped in a flag, and people saluting as the procession passed from town to town. Money was raised to commission the large neoclassical memorial, designed by the architect of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, and a dedication was held at the beginning of construction, in 1909, on Lincoln’s 100th birthday, attended by President Theodore Roosevelt.
After the stone memorial building was completed, it was discovered that the cabin was too large for the space, so it was trimmed down from its original 16 x 18 feet, to 12 x 17 feet. At the end of construction, in 1911, another dedication was held, attended by President William Taft. A third ceremony was held in 1916, when Collier’s group, known as the Lincoln Farm Association, turned it over to the federal government, and it finally became Abraham Lincoln National Park. President Woodrow Wilson was there to accept it.
Later research officially challenged the authenticity of the logs that made up the reconstructed cabin, and in 1956 the Park Service was finally forced to admit that the cabin was of “debatable authenticity.” Eventually the “birthplace” logs were scientifically tested, and they dated to the 1850s, four decades later than Lincoln’s birth.
The Lincoln family left Sinking Spring Farm in 1811, when Abraham Lincoln was two years old, and moved to Knob Creek Farm, ten miles east, where they lived for five years. The site, owned and operated by the National Park Service, has a replica of the log cabin they lived in at this location, built in 1931, using logs from a nearby cabin. There is also a log cabin-style ranger station, originally constructed in 1933 as the Lincoln Tavern, a watering hole built to attract tourists who were increasingly traveling to the area to visit Lincoln-related sites.
In 1816, the Lincoln family moved again, to a farm in Indiana, near Lincoln City (though it wasn’t called that then). This site is now the Lincoln Boyhood National Monument, and is also operated by the National Park Service. The Lincoln family lived there until 1830, so this is where Abraham spent most of his youth, from age seven to 21.
In the 1930s, the site of the original cabin they lived in was discovered, with some degree of certainty, however the decision was made to not make a reconstruction. Instead, a ruined fireplace and sill beams outlining the walls were cast in bronze, and set on the ground, inside a walled perimeter.
Presidents #17 - 26: Log Cabins to Brownstones
Andrew Johnson, who became the 17th president, was born in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, such as it was in 1808, in a kitchen building, which is now a mile away, maybe. The kitchen was a small outbuilding, located behind the roadside inn and tavern where his parents worked. The rest of the inn is gone, but what was thought to be the kitchen structure has been preserved, and is located in a historic park, though its provenance is contested. After it was displaced from its original location in the 1850s, making way for larger buildings downtown, the kitchen birthplace structure moved around town a lot, perhaps reflecting local ambivalence about Johnson, who as president enforced Union policies put in place by his predecessor, Abraham Lincoln, at the end of the Civil War. After Andrew Johnson became president, outsiders came to see the birthplace structure, hacking off pieces as souvenirs, accelerating its demise. In 1904, locals began to appreciate its historical value, and it was moved again, near the railroad tracks. But plans for preservation stalled, and it sat there for 25 years, sometimes occupied by hobos. In the 1930s it was moved to state college property, and partially restored. It remained there until 1974, when it was moved to its present location, at Mordecai Historic Park.
The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site preserves some buildings in Greenville, Tennessee, the town the man who became the 17th president moved to as an adult, and where he lived most of his life. A replica of his birthplace kitchen building was constructed here, though the chimney and window are on the left side of the door, not the right, as in the original. The replica of the birthplace kitchen was commissioned by Johnson’s great-granddaughter in 1980, and was originally at Tusculum College, where she went to school in the 1920s. In 1999 it was moved to its present location, though just outside of National Park grounds, as it is not authentic, and is associated with another place entirely, his birthplace in Raleigh, North Carolina, 280 miles away.
Johnson arrived in Greenville in 1826 as an 18 year old uneducated tailor’s apprentice. He opened a shop, married in 1827, and quickly prospered. In 1830 he was elected mayor, beginning his political career. The house, and his tailor shop, are preserved within the Historic Site, and have displays throughout. The entire tailor shop is inside a structure built around it by the state in 1923. In 1851, Johnson moved his family into a bigger house a block and half away, which would be his home for the rest of his life. It too is preserved as part of the Historic Site, along with the grounds.
★ ★ ★
Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the USA, was born in a small house at Point Pleasant, on Ohio’s frontier, in 1822. His father, who worked in a nearby tannery, rented it for $2 per month. The birthplace cabin was Grant’s home for just a year. After that, his family moved on. Though many have come from around the country to see it, this house, too, has seen a lot of the country. After Grant died, in 1885, the house was purchased by a riverboat captain, who moved it onto a barge and took it downriver to Cincinnati, where it was displayed as part of the Ohio Centennial Exposition. After that it traveled to expos and fairs around the country, mostly by railroad, including the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Soon after that the house was purchased by a businessman and history buff from Columbus who brought it to the Columbus fairgrounds. He gave it to the state, which covered it with a large brick and glass structure, and opened it to the public as the Grant Memorial Building, in 1896. It stayed there, on display, for more than 30 years.
Meanwhile, back at the actual birthplace cabin site in Point Pleasant, where a small monument was installed in 1907, a movement was afoot to bring the cabin back, spurred on by a well-attended event held there for Grant’s 100th birthday, in 1922, where President Harding spoke. But efforts dragged on, so they built a replica in 1927 instead. Nine years later, an agreement was reached, and the replica was removed to make space for the assembly of the original cabin, shipped overland in pieces, then opened to the public. The cabin has had its ups and downs since—flooded, defunded, restored, then worn down again, but it is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and is in pretty good shape, and run by the state historical society.
Grant graduated from West Point in 1843 and began the military career that made him famous, starting with the Mexican War, and ending with the Civil War. He married Julia Dent in 1848, and lived for some years with her at her father’s plantation near St. Louis, known as White Haven. Today ten acres of the plantation are owned and managed by the National Park Service as the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Most of the old plantation, though, remains in private hands, as part of the estate of the Busch family of the Anheuser-Busch Company, the largest beer maker in the country, headquartered in St. Louis. There are family mansions on the property, but also a theme park called Grant’s Farm, which has been open since the 1950s, with exotic animals, tram rides, petting zoos, and festive German restaurants and gift shops. Also on site is a cabin called Hardscrabble, which was built by Ulysses S. Grant on another part of the property and later relocated to Grant’s Farm. Their brochure claims that it’s the only remaining structure that was hand-built by a U.S. president prior to assuming office.
★ ★ ★
Rutherford B. Hayes’ parents moved to Delaware, Ohio, from Dummerston, Vermont, and built the first brick house in town, where Hayes was born in 1822. They moved to another house in town a year later. Being in a downtown location, the home was later occupied by businesses such as a furniture store, before it burned down in 1910. A gas station was built on the lot in 1920, and remains there nearly 100 years later. The Daughters of the American Revolution made a small memorial there in the 1950s, with a plaque and some landscaping, which was paid for the Standard Oil Company. Hayes was the 19th president of the USA.
★ ★ ★
In 1830, James Garfield’s parents bought a 50-acre plot of land 12 miles from Cleveland for $100, and built a 20 x 30 foot cabin, in which their son James, the last of the “log cabin” presidents, was born the following year. This cabin was his home for the next 28 years, though during this time he spent some years away at college. He moved away for good after being elected to the Ohio state senate, in 1859. Garfield returned here to visit in 1880, and was elected as the nation’s 20th president later that year. He died in office in 1881, and the cabin burned down sometime after that. This replica was made in 1999, and sits next to the town hall in Moreland Hills, Ohio, near the actual site, which is in the woods behind the property.
Though Chester Arthur was not born here, this site was thought to be his birthplace for years. A large granite monument was installed by the state in 1903. Its dedication was attended by a long list of dignitaries, who had come from far away to this remote spot five miles north of Fairfield, Vermont, near the Canadian border. Carved in stone are the words “On this spot stood the cottage where was born Chester A. Arthur the twenty-first president of the United States.”
Years later, in 1953, that cottage actually appeared, in the form of a replica that was based on an 1880 photograph of the alleged birthplace house. However, while the photograph likely was of a house that stood on this location, and that house was once occupied by the young future president, his parents didn’t move into it until 1830, a year after he was born. In 2002, the state put up a new sign at the alleged birthplace site to help clear things up, saying “…When he was less than a year old his parents moved to a new parsonage built at this site.” Five miles away, in town, the state put up another new sign, saying: “…Although the exact location is debated, Chester A. Arthur was born on Oct. 5, 1829, in Fairfield.”
The uncertainty about Arthur’s birthplace dates back to at least 1880, when he was on the Republican ticket to be Garfield’s vice president, and the Democrats hired an attorney to dig into his past. He concluded that Chester Arthur was born in Dunham, Quebec, where his parents had met and were married, and published a book, “How a British Subject Became President of the United States.”
By then Arthur had already been president for three years. What is more likely is that in 1828 his parents moved to Fairfield, where his father was hired to be the new minister in a local Baptist church. The congregation had quickly built a temporary parsonage for him, where his son was born, in 1829. A year later, they moved to a new parsonage, where the replica is now. The birthplace replica, closed to the public most of the time, houses displays that address these uncertainties which challenge its very reason for existing in the first place. It may be unique as a museum in this regard.
Chester Arthur is buried in the family plot at the Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York. His own tomb lists his birth date as 1830, not 1929, literally taking the uncertainties of his birth to his grave.
★ ★ ★
William McKinley, the 25th president, was born at this site in 1843 in Niles, Ohio, and lived here for nine years, until his family moved away. Afterwards the house was occupied by various families and businesses, until the property was bought in 1890 by a bank.
Instead of demolishing the home, it was cut in half, with one half moved to the back of the lot, and the other half moved to an amusement park, and the bank was built on the former house site. The two half houses were turned into usable independent buildings, one of which was a McKinley Museum for a while. In 1909, the two halves were purchased by a developer, who put them back together as the centerpiece for a housing development three miles away called McKinley Heights, where the reconstructed house became the Birthplace Home Museum.
In 1937 the by-then vacant museum burned to the ground, and the site is now a shopping plaza parking lot. In 2001, the McKinley Memorial Library purchased the now closed bank that occupied the actual birthplace site, and an adjacent property, and built a replica, with a non-original but functional addition in the back. It is open to the public as the McKinley Home and Research Center.
★ ★ ★
Theodore Roosevelt was born at 28 East 20th Street in Manhattan in 1858, in a house very similar to the one that is there now, which is a replica. The house was originally built in 1848 by his grandfather, Cornelius Roosevelt, who was one of the wealthiest people in the city at that time. He built two adjacent brownstones here as wedding presents for his sons (Theodore’s father and uncle). Theodore lived here until he was 14, when the family went on a world tour, then moved into a new apartment at 6 West 57th Street. His birthplace stayed in the family until 1896. A group of notable businessmen, including Frick, Guggenheim, and Thomas Edison, got together to preserve the building as early as 1904, but the group became mired in controversy over the misappropriation of funds, and eventually disbanded. Commercial uses took over the building and transformed it, then in 1916 it was completely demolished and a two-story cafe was built on the site. In 1919, the year he died, the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association purchased the site, and demolished the new existing building. They built a replica of the original home, and a museum and galleries on the adjoining lot. Opened to the public in 1923, it was dedicated on what would have been Roosevelt’s 65th birthday. It was donated to the National Park Service in 1963. In 2015 it underwent a $3.7 million renovation and accessibility upgrade that closed the site for more than a year.
Presidents #27 - 44: 20th Century and Beyond
Roosevelt became the 26th president in 1901, after William McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo. By this time presidents stopped being born in log cabins, and the process for establishing and managing legacy through place was changing, with presidents themselves getting more involved. Sagamore Hill, Roosevelt’s house and gentleman’s farm overlooking Oyster Bay, New York, was his home during and after his presidency, and is his principal museum site. His successor, William Howard Taft, has his official museum in his house in Mount Auburn, Ohio. Woodrow Wilson has a museum at his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia, and at his Embassy Row house in Washington DC, where he retired. Warren Harding, president #29, has a museum at his longtime home in Marion, Ohio. Calvin Coolidge’s landscape legacy is the preserved town of Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where he was born, became president, and where more than five generations of his family are buried.
Herbert Hoover was the earliest president to create a historic park for himself, with his birthplace, library, museum, and tomb, all in one place, open to the public. He had plenty of time, as he lived for another 30 years after being president. At Hyde Park, New York, FDR also created a similar trifecta of birthplace, legacy home/museum, and tomb in one place, and established the precedent for the official presidential library at his home site too, which he designed and built while he was still living there. All presidents since him have selected a place for their official library and archive—14, so far. In 1990, Nixon opened his official museum and library next to his birthplace home in Yorba Linda, California, where he was buried a few years later, 100 feet from his birthplace. He, like Hoover, was born on a Quaker farm. Truman established his library and museum a few blocks from the home he lived in for most of his adult life, in Independence, Missouri, though his birthplace house is 125 miles south, in Lamar. Eisenhower created a historic campus after his presidency, in Abilene, Kansas, where his library, museum, and tomb are carefully arranged around his childhood home in a campus- like quad. LBJ has his ranch west of Austin, where his presidential plane and Western White House home are preserved, and where he is buried next to Lady Bird, 100 yards from his reconstructed birthplace dogtrot cabin. Ford has Michigan, where he put his library in Ann Arbor, and his museum and tomb in Grand Rapids. Carter has Plains, Georgia, where he still lives, and his library/museum in Atlanta. Reagan’s presidential library and museum is in Simi, California, between Hollywood and his beloved Rancho del Cielo above Santa Barbara. George H.W. Bush lives in Houston, and put his library and museum at Texas A&M, where he already has a site picked out for his grave—even if his heart pines for Walker Point. Clinton left a swath of former homes across Arkansas, from Hope to Little Rock, where he put his library and museum. George W. Bush’s museum and library is at SMU, near Dallas, where he lives in a gated community near one-time presidential candidate Ross Perot, and still weekends at Crawford.
And Obama? Though he will hang around DC for a few years, he still has his home on Greenwood Ave, on the south side of Chicago, a 6,400 square-footer on a double lot he once called his Kennebunkport, not too far from where his Presidential Center will be built, at Jackson Park. ♦