William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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CHAPTER 5: TOWARD A MASTER PLAN FOR THE TAFT NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE


The development of a master plan for the Taft National Historic Site was a process wrapped in controversy from the time of the issuance of the first master plan in 1970. Almost as soon as it was read by the National Park Service historical architects and historians who undertook specialized research studies in the early 1970s, the first master plan was condemned. The process of preparing a revised master plan began in earnest in 1974. While the major parties agreed to a compromise master plan in 1978, the final version of the plan was not published until 1981. Even then, controversy continued.

To an outsider, the years devoted to preparing a new master plan for the Taft home can be viewed as an exercise that only a governmental bureaucracy could invent to keep its professional staff occupied. But, in practice, the bureau argued that funds could not be intelligently spent on the development, refurnishing, and interpretation of the property until a plan had been formulated. Otherwise, costly mistakes could be made and valuable information could be lost in the process.

The succession of events that make up the story of the site’s master plan dispels any notion that the National Park Service is “monolithic” in its professional approach to history and historic resources. Rather, the bureau is populated by historians, historical architects, interpretive specialists, and other professionals whose experience and points of view cover the spectrum of possibilities. This range of professional opinion accounts for the lack of consensus that plagued the planning process.

The essential obstacle in the master plan effort was the lack of sufficient information upon which to base decisions. When the effort to develop a new master plan was launched in 1974, four key reports had been completed and approved: the historical data report prepared by Historian Edwin C. Bearss, the architectural data report by Architect Norman M. Souder, and the two archeological studies prepared by Major Charles Ross McCollough. As the process proceeded, members of the master plan team had difficulty relating the historical record to the building fabric. The architectural study performed by Souder focused on what he could see on the surface of the interior. His investigations did not involve stripping away walls to determine what elements dated from Taft's boyhood period and what dated from later periods. In the absence of a more thorough investigation of the building's fabric, members of the study team thought that recommendations on which rooms to restore were speculative. The lack of a thorough furnishings study was an impediment to resolving questions about which rooms could be refurnished.

The preparation of the master plan in the 1970s also was affected by the recently passed National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the indecision on the part of the National Park Service on how to incorporate its provisions into the master planning process. In the early years, federal agencies groped for guidance on standards for environmental impact analyses. Some environmental impact statements were a few pages in length, while others were book-length. Analyses of environmental impacts required the consideration of a range of alternatives. At times, alternatives presented were not feasible under any circumstances. They were subjected to analysis anyway.

At the same time, the National Park Service's own policies regarding the treatment of historic resources were evolving. Where one level of historical documentation was considered sufficient for restoration and refurnishing in the early 1970s, the same level was considered insufficient in the latter part of that decade. The clash of the new and the old policies was played out during the seven-year effort toward a new master plan for the Taft National Historic Site.

The situation was further complicated by the various centers of decision-making of the National Park Service. The bureau is set up so that all interested parties can interact in the process. These parties included the Washington Office, the Midwest Regional Office, and the Taft National Historic Site. The specialized professional staff, once located in Washington, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, were reorganized. The curatorial and exhibit staff resided in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, site of a major National Park Service presence. Much of the architectural historical, and interpretive staff was shifted to the Denver Service Center. In theory, the Denver Service Center undertakes consulting services for the regions much in the same way that a contractor serves a client. However, in practice, the scheduling of work often is thrown off by shifting priorities. Thus, it was sometimes the case with the Taft National Historic Site that the master plan delays could be ascribed to the assignment of relevant staff to other, more pressing projects.

Despite the difficulties encountered by the National Park Service in resolving the varying points of view in the master planning process, the exercise was similar in substance to that experienced by organizations and agencies responsible for historic buildings throughout the nation. The difference between the National Park Service's approach and that of other administrative bodies was one of form. Few other organizations or agencies have developed such a sophisticated system for conducting research studies and for devising plans. All organizations and agencies face common problems of a property's purpose and message, how the property can be restored and furnished to convey this message, and the need to rethink the presentation of the house as new information emerges or as preservation practice evolves. Because there is no one approach to presenting a historic house that will endure forever, it is not surprising then that highly respected historical organizations, such as Colonial Williamsburg, periodically restudy their historic buildings and revamp restoration and interior furnishings.

In the late 1960s, when the Taft National Historic Site "study of alternatives" and the 1970 master plan were being formulated, the term " restoration'' was one that was widely accepted without serious thought as to what it encompassed. The 1968 alternatives study recommended "a plan of development under which the house and grounds would be restored." [1] The assumption of restoration and refurnishing was conveyed by the Interior Department to the appropriate House and Senate committees and was an underlying justification for the development funds authorized for the property.

The 1970 master plan also included "restoration" as one of the objectives of the National Park Service in developing the site. However, in this plan, the term was used much more loosely. As the report stated, the bureau should "restore the exterior of the William Howard Taft house, limiting interior restoration to that needed to support effective interpretation and suggest the 19th century decor." [2] In the specifics, the plan recommended restoration of rooms according to the interpretive objectives rather than to the availability of sufficient information to support restoration. The plan called for the restoration of the hall, south parlor, dining room, and first floor bedroom. The north parlors would be "restored in period style to serve adaptive use. They will be the location of an audio-visual facility." [3]

For the second floor, the 1970 plan recommended that it be "fully preserved and selectively restored." The south rooms would be "restored in period style for adaptive use as a meeting and social gathering area." The north section would be "similarly restored to accommodate an appropriate library facility, furnished in the manner of the period of the house's interpretation." For the rear wing, the 1970 plan suggested administrative uses and a small kitchen facility. The plan went on to prescribe that if future research revealed that one of the second floor rooms served as the Tafts' bedroom, consideration might be given to fully restoring and historically furnishing that room. No mentioned was made of where the displaced functions would be located. [4] On the ground floor, the plan suggested restrooms and curatorial, maintenance, and storage spaces in the rear wing, to the east of the mechanical and boiler rooms under the main section of the house.

According to the 1970 plan, the interpretation of the property could be handled primarily through a series of audiovisual facilities. "Because of the low-key but substantial character of the subject's life . . . more than one audio-visual program should exist." [5] The plan also presented a general scheme whereby sixteen parking spaces would be provided on the adjoining Cross property with access provided by a ramped drive leading to and from Auburn Avenue, down the 25-foot drop from street level.

The first serious questions about the 1970 master plan were raised by Historical Architect Hugh C. Miller and Historian Edwin C. Bearss, both of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation. Miller and Bearss thought that the scope of the historically furnished rooms could be enlarged because surviving records and letters provided a good source of documentary evidence. Bearss wrote, "Available documents as to Taft lifestyles, furnishings, and room arrangements point toward the restoration and refurnishing of the entire first floor and the basement rooms built in 1851 as a historic house museum." Based on this observation, Bearss recommended that the site's general development plan be changed. [6] Miller raised the question of the feasibility of using the second floor for public gatherings given the structural condition of the house and the lack of a fireproof stair. The impending demolition of the structure on the Cross property, as recommended in the 1970 plan, was also questioned. [7] A photograph of the building on the Cross property had not been included in the 1970 master plan. When Miller and Bearss saw the building, they noted that it dated from the 1880s and contributed to the character of the historic Mt. Auburn area. The property might be useful for National Park Services offices and for visitor services.

Following the Miller and Bearss visit of late 1971, a rising chorus of objections to the 1970 master plan engulfed planning activities of the next two years. In early 1973, Robert M. Utley, Director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, recommended that a new study of the resource be undertaken, adding "without such a study, we fear that the development of Taft will result in an operational disaster in which the intrinsic value of [the] Taft House will be destroyed." [8] Birdsell characterized the 1970 master plan as "completed and approved before any in-house research was undertaken, and as a result the plan has proved to be premature, shallow, and incomplete." [9]

The anticipated need to revise the site's master plan was provided by the Department of the Interior as a reason for not beginning development work in 1973. However, the various documents required appeared excessive in the eyes of the Taft family. When Senator Robert A. Taft, Jr., wrote to Interior Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton complaining about the delay in development, he stated:

I can appreciate that the Environmental Impact Statement, Master Plan and Resource Management Plan may be pre-requisite for starting the restoration and development. With an old single family residence and the small surrounding grounds involved, however, it is hard to conceive how any of these should present any difficulty of major importance. Meanwhile, part of the building is falling down or about to. [10]

In response to Robert Taft's letter, Regional Director Chester L. Brooks assured him that the reports represented "an essential and orderly programming process which, subject to fiscal constraints and the Bicentennial Program, will form the basis of the highly technical and complex restoration of the William Howard Taft National Historic Site." Although time-consuming, the effort promised "optimum results." [11]


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Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001