William Howard Taft
CHAPTER 10: THE TAFT NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE AND THE COMMUNITY
Unlike many National Park Service sites, the William Howard Taft National Historic Site is located in a complex urban environment. Its most immediate neighbor is the Juvenile Detention Center, a factor which brings the site into contact with Hamilton County officials. The site is located in Mt. Auburn, a historically suburban settlement now viewed as "inner city," with a stable and politically active population of predominantly black residents. Mt. Auburn is also ringed with large institutions, such as major hospitals, which provide sources of employment but which also generate traffic and other urban impacts on the surrounding residential area. Several blocks to the northwest is the dense campus of the University of Cincinnati, a leading center of learning which has yet to be fully utilized as a resource for the development and interpretation of the Taft home. In addition, the Taft site is logically tied to the city's historical and cultural institutions, most notably the Cincinnati Historical Society.
Charles Taft's early visions for the Taft home included a close tie with the Hamilton County Detention Center. Plans of the early 1960's called for some center functions to be located on the second floor of the house. As the project evolved, the county facility faded into the background. A flurry of activity in 1968 resulted from the prospective enlargement of the facility. Designs for the enlargement called for doubling the facility's size with additions to the front of the building facing onto Auburn Avenue. After vigorous protests by Charles Taft and the National Park Service, the plans were dropped.
In the 1970s and the early 1980s, the major dealings between the National Park Service and Hamilton County involved parcels of land on the block which supported development of the Taft home by providing accommodations for increased visitation. The discussions also revolved around the possibility that the Detention Center might be moved entirely from the block and that the county might cede the land associated with the house when occupied by William Howard Taft. The granting of a perpetual easement on the sixteen-foot strip of land along the southern boundary of the Taft home for screening purposes in December 1969 was the easiest transaction to consummate. (It was later conveyed to the National Park Service in September 1979.) As the master planning process evolved in the 1970s, the National Park Service looked to other parcels that might be added to the site. The parcel at the corner of Southern Avenue and Young Street, acquired by Hamilton County in 1973, was conveyed to the Federal government in October 1985. This lot was included in the 1981 master plan as a bus staging area and an overflow lot for automobile parking. The National Park Service also considered the parcel of land to the east of the Taft home grounds, occupied by the north wing of the Detention Center, as a logical addition to the site. As the 1981 master plan stated, "Full restoration of the remainder of the historic property may be considered if other Taft lands, now owned by Hamilton County, become available; however, the National Park Service is not actively seeking to acquire that portion of the historic property." 
One of the most enduring associations between the Taft National Historic Site and the community has revolved around the Mt. Auburn Community Council and its progeny, the Good Housing Foundation. The Mt. Auburn neighborhood has been blessed with an active, well-organized, and politically astute population. The Mt. Auburn Community Council has worked to improve the quality of housing and services in an era when inner city areas were abandoned by the affluent and influential. In its efforts to maintain the quality of life in the neighborhood, the Council created the Mt. Auburn Good Housing Foundation, a community based corporation. The Foundation owns and develops housing projects that complement the surroundings and accommodate residents of moderate means.
The Mt. Auburn Community Council and its housing arm have taken a great interest in the area's older buildings. The organizations sponsored the nomination of the Mt. Auburn Historic District to the National Register of Historic Places. They regard the retention of older buildings as a means to maintain the area's historic character and as a vehicle for providing desirable housing. The identification of the community efforts with historic preservation is so strong that Mt. Auburn's leaders have become nationally recognized in the historic preservation field.
The acquisition of the Taft home by the National Park Service and the subsequent expansion of the site might have been viewed by the surrounding neighborhood with great suspicion. However the community recognizes that the maintenance and development of the Taft home is an activity that contributes in a positive way to the area. It is one of the community's attractions and a potentially powerful educational force. Thus, the staff at the Taft National Historic Site and the community have enjoyed a cooperative working relationship almost from the start.
The city's other institutions have played a more peripheral role in the evolution of the Taft National Historic Site. Relations with the Christ Hospital, located across Auburn Avenue from the Taft home, have focused primarily on parking and traffic questions. Any expansion of the hospital could place added demands on both on-street parking and traffic volume, factors that could affect visitor access to the Taft home.
Academics associated with the University of Cincinnati have not played a major role in the development of the site except to review versions of the master plan. The master plan revision, initiated in 1974, was carried out in a manner similar to that of many other National Park Service documents. Only agency personnel were included on the "working team." Outside experts, such as educators, historians, and architects from the community surrounding the site, are normally involved when the agency solicits public response to its proposed plans. This method of organizing work and response places potentially knowledgeable local individuals on the periphery of the process. Their advice can be ignored. For example, when Professor Rogers Daniels of the University of Cincinnati history department made substantive comments on the draft master plan, his comments were not conveyed by Superintendent Whitaker to the Midwest Regional Office.
The Cincinnati Historical Society, generally regarded as among the nation's top city-wide historical societies, has also played only a minor role in the development of the site. During a brief period in the early 1960s, Charles Taft considered turning over the management of the historical aspects of the property to the Historical Society. This arrangement would have been made possible through an annual appropriation from Hamilton County to the Historical Society for this purpose. However, the appropriation did not materialize and the organization's role was limited to that of reviewing master plan drafts.
In the creation of the Taft National Historic Site, the Memorial Association was envisioned by both the National Park Service and Charles Taft as the private support group that could provide advice and sources of private funds. As Taft assured Superintendent Schesventer in 1970, the members of the Memorial Association were expecting "to facilitate, stimulate, cooperate in any of the operations in the house in which they can be of help." In fact, Taft anticipated that the organization would be expanded "by getting more new board members, setting up special committees for various phases. . . like furniture, colors, and other elements of that sort. This hasn't been done before because they didn't want committees set up with nothing to do."  However, as the 1970s wore on, Taft and the Memorial Association became synonymous. When Taft's health declined and his involvement in the Taft home became more remote, the Memorial Association faded as well.
In late 1983, a new organization, the Friends of the William Howard Taft Birthplace, was created. Superintendent Boyd patterned the Friends group after the example of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, the private support group attached to the National Park Service-administered Frederick Douglass Home in Washington, D.C., with which she was familiar. Boyd recruited Hope Taft, wife of Robert Taft II and an active volunteer on community projects; Jane Goetzman, wife of well-known Cincinnati architect Bruce Goetzman and a preservation activist; and Lloyd Taft, son of Robert A. Taft, as the organization's first three trustees. This core of founding trustees recruited others, including Mary Heller, another Cincinnati preservation activist, as president of the Friends. The Friends group envisioned itself as a broad based organization and maintained a modest dues for membership. Its purpose was to support the Taft National Historic Site through public awareness, fundraising, lobbying, donations of objects for the furnishing of the house, and educational programs.
When the Friends group was formed, Superintendent Boyd offered the services of the site staff to administer the organization. During May 1985, the site staff, in conjunction with members of the Friends Board, determined that it was not feasible for the park to continue providing administrative support for the Friends. In the following month, the Friends trustees hired its own part-time staff person to handle membership, newsletter mailings, and other administrative matters. This change brought both groups into compliance with their Memorandum of Agreement and Government policy. In 1984 and 1985, as the construction work proceeded on the site, membership in the Friends group grew.
After its founding, the Friends group solicited donations for the property through the "Gifts Catalogue" which was initiated by Superintendent Boyd and published with the financial assistance of the Taft family. The Taft gifts catalogue was modeled on a similar catalogue produced by the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area in 1982 which listed material goods and projects needed, prices, and ways in which individuals and organizations could participate in the program. The Friends also organized several fundraising activities, such as the William Howard Taft Commemorative Ball held March 2, 1985. Other activities included the production of a videotape on William Howard Taft, called "The Reluctant Politician," and high visibility public programs.
The amount of fundraising required was greater than initially anticipated. The group raised nearly $190,000 as of mid-1985, a sum that exceeds that raised by most private support groups attached to National Park Service sites. Through the funds raised by the group since 1983, objects for the house have been acquired and repaired and supporting activities funded. Although the National Park Service staff provided the initial impetus for the formation of the Friends group, the latter organization has achieved a high degree of independence and performs the kind of lobbying and local support work that cannot be carried out by a Federal Government agency.
A private support group tied to a government-owned historic site is a common development today. In an era of fiscal constraints, few public agencies are able to develop their historic properties to their maximum level with public funds alone. A private support organization like a "friends group" provides that extra reservoir of community and financial support that is essential if a historic property is to compete effectively for scarce funds. Such groups also inspire good will between governmental agencies and the general public.
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