William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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The William Howard Taft National Historic Site consists of a single house and several tracts of land dotted over the northern portion of a city block. The grounds associated with the property today differ from those of the Taft era because of the process of urban change that occurred between 1899, when the Taft family sold the property and 1969, when the Taft National Historic Site was created. The grounds attached to the site also reflect National Park Service acquisitions in support of public visitation and interpretation. However, the house is the star attraction. It represents the family, birthplace, and boyhood home of William Howard Taft, the only man to serve his country as both President of the United States and Chief Justice of the United States.

The house stands close to the crest of the long hill that rises from the flat basin city. Its location was a product of the development of Cincinnati. In the 1850s, Cincinnati's thriving waterfront and development of commerce had pushed settlement to the edges of the flat peninsula that jutted out along the Ohio River. Looking for escape from the congestion and heat of the lowland, the city's affluent moved up into the surrounding hills. Mt. Auburn, just to the north, was one of the first to be settled. It was made accessible by omnibus. Mt. Auburn's aloofness from the central city provided an agreeable country-like suburban setting for substantial houses surrounded by spacious grounds. [1]

The original section of the house at 60 Auburn Street (now 2038 Auburn Avenue) was built in the 1840s by the Bowen family. It was a two-story square house constructed of brick. In 1851, Alphonso Taft purchased the house and 1.82 acres of land extending from Auburn Street eastward beyond the present location of Young Street for $10,000. Alphonso had moved to Cincinnati in 1838 from Vermont. He was one of a large number of ambitious young men from New England who sought greater economic opportunities in the boom cities of the "American West" (as Ohio was then called). In 1841, Alphonso married Fanny Phelps, also of Vermont, and set up his first household in the flat central city. Over the next ten years, Fanny Taft bore five children, two of whom lived to adulthood. They were Charles Phelps, born in 1843, and Peter Rawson, in 1845. As Alphonso's fortunes rose and his wife's health declined he sought a new home in the healthier environment offered by Mt. Auburn. The house at 60 Auburn Street fitted his requirements. Other New Englanders occupied houses in Mt. Auburn.

Like many new home owners, Alphonso made alterations to his house: He built a brick ell to the rear. Because of the slope of the ground, the addition rose three stories and incorporated an entrance to the ground floor. Improvements were made in the house to accommodate the tastes of the new occupants, such as the addition of plumbing, the building of cupboards, and interior painting. Despite the move to Mt. Auburn, the health of Alphonso's wife continued to decline. She died in June 1852.

Alphonso married again in late 1853. His new bride, Louise Maria Torrey, was also from New England. Upon her arrival at Auburn Avenue, the new Mrs. Taft set about refurnishing the house. Alphonso and Louise had four sons and one daughter. The first son, Samuel, died of whooping cough at fourteen months of age. On September 15, 1857, their second son and the. future President of the United States, William Howard, was born. William Howard was followed by Henry Waters, Horace Dutton, and finally, Frances Louise.

During the time William Howard and his siblings were growing up in Mt. Auburn, the Taft family was an integral part of the social, intellectual, and political elite of Cincinnati, if not of Ohio. The Tafts hosted many illustrious visitors and participated in national movements, such as abolitionism and temperance. Discussions in the house focused on a wide range of topics covering national politics, social causes, and international events. In the house, the Tafts mingled with politicians, businessmen, and military leaders who later influenced the course of American history.

The home was also the setting for lessons for the Taft children. Here their characters and ambitions were shaped. The effect of the Taft parents on their children was later observed by Helen (Nellie) Herron, William Howard's wife. She wrote of the Tafts' confidence in their children, which impelled the latter to live up to their parents' expectations: "They [the Taft parents] had created an atmosphere in which the children absorbed high ideals and strove to meet the family standard of intellectual and moral effort." [2]

As the nation's Civil War came to a conclusion, Ohio as a "swing state" and one that contributed heavily to the Union cause stood ready to reap the political benefits. Alphonso's first step as a public servant was taken in late 1865, when he was appointed to the State Supreme Court. Later, he was elected to the position. In 1875, Alphonso became a candidate for governor of Ohio. However, he lost the Republican nomination to Rutherford B. Hayes. The following year, in 1876, he was named Secretary of War and later Attorney General in President Ulysses S. Grant's cabinet. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur named Alphonso to the position of U.S. Minister to Austria-Hungary and in 1884, to Russia.

While Alphonso ascended the ladder of public service, his son William Howard grew up, attended Woodward High School and in 1874, entered Yale College. Although William Howard spent months at a time at the Taft home in Mt. Auburn between 1874 and 1886 when he married and set up his own home, for all practical purposes, his primary association with it concluded when he entered college. After graduation from Yale, William Howard attended Cincinnati Law School. During his law school years, he lived with his parents. Soon after his .admission to the Ohio bar, he was appointed Assistant Prosecutor of Hamilton County. In 1886, William Howard married Nellie Herron and settled in Walnut Hills, another of the hills that surrounded Cincinnati's central area.

William Howard Taft moved rapidly through positions of higher responsibility, including Judge of Cincinnati's Superior Court, Solicitor General of the United States, service on the Federal Circuit Court, Governor General of the Philippine Islands, and Secretary of War in 1904 under President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1908, Taft won the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency and was subsequently elected President. As President, Taft became identified as a trust-buster, dissolving such corporate heavyweights as the Standard Oil Company and the American Tobacco Company. In 1912, Taft and Roosevelt had a falling out and each ran separately for the presidency against Woodrow Wilson, thereby ensuring Wilson's victory. After leaving the White House, Taft returned to Yale as a professor of constitutional law. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding appointed Taft Chief Justice of the United States. Taft was thus the only man in United States history to serve as head of those two branches of the Federal Government. He died in 1930. Although Taft's illustrious career falls beyond the major story of the Taft home, its roots, early development, and ultimate destination can be explored through the property.

The story of the house beyond its association with William Howard Taft is also worth relating. In 1877, when the Alphonso Tafts returned from Washington, the house on Auburn Street caught fire. In repairing the damage to the house, the Tafts made several changes. The upper story was raised to eleven feet. A new iron cornice was placed around the house. New sills, sash, and shutters were added. Other changes were made to the 1851 east wing. New wallpaper and wall finishes were applied to the interior. New light fixtures were affixed. In subsequent years, the Tafts made other changes to the house. A mantle made by Heinrich Fry was placed in the parlor. Another mantle by Rogers was placed in the library.

In the late 1880s, Alphonso's health began to decline. He and his wife made one last trip to New England in 1889 and then headed to San Diego and a warmer climate. Alphonso died in San Diego in 1891. Louise spent her widowhood in her hometown of Millbury, Massachusetts.

By late 1889, the house at 60 Auburn Street had ceased to be occupied by a Taft. A succession of families rented the house until 1899 when the house was sold to Judge Albert C. Thompson. In the ten years between 1889 and 1899, the Tafts made several attempts to sell the house. The difficulty encountered in these attempts prompted Louise to consider razing the house and selling it to a developer interested in building apartment houses. [3]

The Thompsons occupied the property until 1910 when Judge Thompson died. In 1912, Mrs. Thompson sold the house (now addressed 2038 Auburn Avenue) to Colonel Ernest H. Ruffner of the U.S. Corps of Engineers who had served as district engineer in Cincinnati. Upon Colonel Ruffner's death in 1937, the property was again put up for sale, this time by Ruffner's daughter, Mrs. Louis K. (Violet) DeBus. By 1937, the house had gained the respect of age and of historical association with a now deceased President. The newly-incorporated William Howard Taft Memorial Association sprang into action and initiated the first efforts to preserve the property.


Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001