William Howard Taft
The story of the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati, Ohio, serves as a microcosm of the National Park Service during the years from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s. The legislation providing for Federal stewardship of the site was passed in 1969, the conclusion of a decade marked by a great expansion in the National Park Service 's holdings and programs. In the following decade, the property evolved in an environment of retrenchment and intense competition for available funding. The changed circumstances took their toll on the property. It languished in the backwaters of National Park Service priorities. Not until fifteen years later, in the mid-1980s, was the restoration of the exterior completed.
In the years after the passage of the legislation creating the Taft National Historic Site, the civil rights and environmental movements figured heavily in the way the National Park Service conducted its programs and ultimately in the way the property was treated. For a bureau experienced in managing large expanses of land far removed from urban settings, the Taft National Historic Site provided a challenge in restoring and interpreting a small property located in an inner-city neighborhood. The property bore the scars of urban transition reflected in the many alterations since the period of greatest historical significance. It was located far from popular tourist destinations, promising modest visitation numbers. In addition, the way in which the National Park Service conducted its work in the 1970s differed from that of previous decades. The new wave of environmentalism subjected the work of the nation's foremost preservation bureau to public reviews of the impacts of its plans for properties.
During this period, the National Park Service's own internal policies and priorities moved in new directions. Approaches to protecting historic resources in an urban context had yet to be fully formulated. When were restoration and reconstuction to be undertaken by the bureau? Would the Taft property become another bureau-sponsored furnished historic house museum? Professional historians and historical architects questioned this approach in the absence of complete documentation. As the bureau examined its policies affecting historic properties, the demands of the Bicentennial of the nation placed extra demands upon it and siphoned off resources that might have been devoted to planning and maintenance.
While changes to the nation and to the larger mission of the National Park Service affected the development of the Taft National Historic Site, the property itself also presented a difficult set of conditions. Unlike many historic properties acquired by the National Park Service, the Taft home had been altered by a succession of owners. The last private owner turned the property into a rooming house. First impressions of the property by several of the bureau's professional staff were lasting. Its image as a "beat up old building" associated with what several staff members perceived to be a lesser United States President stalled efforts to move ahead with planning and development.
The National Park Service system for generating planning studies affected the progress of developing the Taft site. Early in the 1970s, the bureau commissioned two key documents from its professional staff, the historical data and the architectural data sections of the historic structure report. As the master planning process progressed, questions arose regarding how well the written record as cited in the historical data report related to the actual fabric of the building. The architectural data report was based on what the historical architect could see without removing building elements. The report proved to be insufficient and needed to be redone. However, the master planning process proceeded in the absence of more detailed analyses and became bogged down in a frustrating exercise in uncertainty and indecision.
Beyond the big picture of one bureau's attempts to cope with a changing world and with its own evolving policies, the Taft National Historic Site story raises issues pertinent to the treatment of all historic properties open to public visitation whether administered by the National Park Service, other government agencies, or private organizations. Such properties raise questions about purpose, interpretation, authenticity surviving historical fabric, public access, and financial feasibility. It is rare that a property arrives in the hands of an administrative body with its fabric, contents, setting, and endowment neatly in place. Rather, properties most often come to such agencies or organizations requiring upgrading or restoration. Less than sufficient financial resources with which to carry out its public functions is another common condition.
This administrative history was prepared under contract with the Midwest Regional Office of the National Park Service located in Omaha, Nebraska. The regional office has had direct administrative responsibility for the Taft National Historic Site since 1974.
The time frame for this report spans the period from the 1840s when the house that later became the focus of the Taft National Historic Site was built to mid-1985. The report covers in a summary fashion the historical evolution of the property up to the 1960s when efforts were initiated to restore the property. The report's major purpose is to present the development of the property since 1969 when the property was designated the William Howard Taft National Historic Site and conveyed to the National Park Service. The report carries the story of the National Park Service stewardship up to the arrival of Superintendent Kesselman in mid-1985. His arrival marked the beginning of new planning initiatives and actions which have not reached a point of conclusion.
In preparing this history, the author had the pleasure of working with the present staff of the Taft National Historic Site, most notably Ella Rayburn, Park Historian, and Steven Kesselman, Park Superintendent. The author was pleased to have the opportunity to interview past Taft National Historic Site employees Maxine Boyd and Samuel Witherup and current National Park Service employees Randall R. Pope, Hugh C. Miller, John Kawamoto, and Andy Ketterson. The hospitable staff of the Midwest Regional Office provided a temporary office and ready access to the property's files and relevant staff during a trip to Omaha. The National Park Service's offices in Washington, D.C. also provided cooperation, including the Office of Legislation, the Office of the Chief Historian and the Chief Historical Architect, the Central Files, and the Land Acquisition Office. The author is appreciative of the many instances of hospitality that far exceeded the call of duty.
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