William Howard Taft
For historic properties everywhere, there is no such thing as "a finished building." Although a property may be restored, furnished, and open for public visitation, the process of planning is a continuous one. New research investigations and findings may shed new light on the way a property is restored, furnished, and thus interpreted. Likewise, new methods of preservation, either technological or philosophical, may also affect the appearance and presentation of the property. The unfinished nature of historic properties is especially applicable to the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. Not only is the property currently unfinished, its " compromise" master plan also leaves open many avenues for future revision.
The story of the Taft National Historic Site illuminates the necessary and universal steps that any historic property must encounter as it is transformed from a property used for normal residential, commercial, and institutional uses to a property intended for public visitation. Studies undertaken on the site revealed its significance, physical makeup, evolution, and interpretive message. Plans for its development were devised, funds were budgeted and expended for construction work, and staff put in place to administer the property and its programs.
The development of the Taft National Historic Site also is revealing of the way in which its administering organization evolved during the 1960s and 1970s. The acquisition of the property by the National Park Service folded the property into a large and complex organization which responds to both external and internal forces. The civil rights and environmental movements affected the way in which the bureau staffed its sites, handled community relations, and evaluated impacts of its plans on properties under its control. The property suffered from its low priority status in the eyes of several bureau staff members who viewed it as lacking architectural integrity, in hopelessly poor repair, associated with a lesser United States President, and located in a kind of urban setting that was foreign to their experience. Year after year, the property was shifted to the back burner in favor of other National Park Service units that enjoyed greater visibility and political support.
While organizational inertia can account for some of the delay that held the Taft site back from the construction program, the essential obstacle was the honest disagreement among National Park Service personnel regarding management policy. Policy covering restoration and refurnishing in the late 1960s and early 1970s differed from that of the mid-1970s. In the earlier period, restorations and refurnishings were undertaken with what was then considered sufficient information. By the mid-1970s, the policy stated that " sufficient historical, architectural, and archeological data must exist to permit accurate restoration, with a minimum of conjecture."
Plans prepared by the National Park Service staff for the Taft site in the earlier period called for restoration and refurnishing. This expectation was absorbed into Interior Department correspondence with the appropriate congressional committees and into the congressional reports that accompanied the legislation to create the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. Congressional intent versus National Park Service management policy produced a lock on the planning process that was resolved only through a compromise hammered out in 1978 and then refined somewhat through additional research until the issuance of the revised master plan in 1981.
A juxtaposition of events yanked the Taft National Historic Site to the forefront of National Park Service attention. The initial impetus was the 1980 earthquake. The Midwest Regional Office determined to invest funds in the property in order to stabilize it, despite its being dropped from the servicewide construction program. When the Cincinnati community observed the long-delayed construction work finally proceeding, residents lobbied the National Park Service and the United States Congress for funds to complete the interior restoration and refurnishing. By the mid-1980s, the impending Bicentennial of the City of Cincinnati, scheduled for 1988, served as an incentive to maintain the momentum.
As the Taft National Historic Site nears the final bend in the long road towards restoration and public visitation, all parties involved in the project will likely perceive that the property is reaching a state of finality. No doubt the "completion" of the physical restoration and refurnishing of the Taft home will be declared in the next few years and the staff will then turn its attention to receiving and educating visitors. However, the story of the property will continue, through new plans, new research, new discoveries, new opportunities to acquire nearby property, and new professional points of view. The continuing story contradicts the view held by many that historic properties open for public visitation are frozen in time and therefore essentially "dead." In actuality, they are dynamic places. The physical fabric will continue to evolve. The interpretive programs will grow and develop. The Taft National Historic Site will continue its evolution from its starting point in the 1840s. How it evolves from 1985 onward will provide the basis of a telling story, not only of its essential historical associations but of the National Park Service and of the practice of historic property stewardship itself.
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