William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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In 1970, the land turned over to the National Park Service from the Memorial Association constituted just over a half-acre. The house faced onto Auburn Avenue, a major north-south thoroughfare through Mt. Auburn. To its south and east stood the sprawling Hamilton County Detention Center. To the north was the five story apartment house owned by the Cross Construction Company. North of the Cross property at the corner of Auburn and Southern Avenues stood an apartment house of recent vintage. Along Southern Avenue east to Young Street were two apartment houses. At the corner of Southern Avenue and Young Street was an empty lot, later proposed for a bus staging area or parking area.

The original lot as it existed during the period when William Howard Taft occupied the house covered 1.8 acres. The original plot stretched eastward beyond Young Street (which lies parallel and to the east of Auburn Avenue). During the succession of owners from the late nineteenth century to 1967, the land holdings were chopped away. A major portion of the land to the east was sold in 1951 by Bellinger to Hamilton County for the Youth Detention Center, thereby cutting off access to the house from Young Street.

The grounds immediately surrounding the house present obstacles to making the Taft home accessible. The house stands on a slope that drops precipitously to the east and north. A narrow driveway to the north is connected to the driveway on the south, forming a "U," and provides access to a limited number of parking spaces at the rear of the house. However, this parking area is insufficient for visitor use. In addition, development of the immediate grounds to accommodate visitors would adversely affect the setting for the house and cause unnecessary vibrations to the fragile resource.

Site plans for the Taft National Historic Site were guided by two major considerations. In the early years, Charles P. Taft and the National Park Service were intent on providing what they considered an appropriate setting for the house. This effort was pursued with the hope that the historic setting for the house during William Howard Taft's occupancy could be recreated. The other consideration was that of providing visitor access and services. This factor entailed studies of parking facilities, both on and off street, and a possible visitors' reception center. The latter facility would be similar to such centers located at other National Park Service sites.

The first issue, that of a historically plausible setting for the site, was one that was severely hampered by the changes to the site since the departure of the Tafts in the 1890s and the development of the land included within the historical boundaries by the Hamilton County Detention Center. The ability to restore the original setting was effectively blocked by the urbanization and development of the block. The vision of an authentic site was also spurred by remembrances of National Park Service properties located in splendid isolation. A historic site situated in an urban setting with buildings dating from several periods was not yet a concept which had seeped into general historic park planning. The desire to achieve an authentic setting was also a driving force behind the several landscape and archeological studies that were important to the interpretation of the site.

The authenticity and visitor access issues arose almost as soon as the National Park Service began to study the property. It is unclear as to whether some of the early proposed solutions can be ascribed to the bureau's staff or to Charles Taft. In late 1967, in a letter to members of his family, Charles Taft reported on the visit by National Park Service staff to the property in June of that year. Taft wrote, "The Interior people may well recommend that we purchase the two apartment houses to the north and expand the grounds." [1]

In the 1968 report, "A Study of Alternatives," the National Park Service offered three development alternatives that addressed the setting of the Taft home. Alternative Plan I provided for visitor parking on the grounds of Hamilton County Detention Center through an agreement with the county. Even though one wing of the Detention Center stretched out into the land that was once attached to the Taft home, the report stated that this alternative had "the advantage of permitting restoration of the grounds around the Taft Home, thereby providing an effective setting for the house." [2] Alternative Plan II called for visitor parking and access provided only on the half-acre Taft property, made accessible by the driveway on the north, which at that time terminated behind the house on a ungraded and unsurfaced area. This alternative required that some visitors seek on- street parking. Alternative Plan III provided for parking on the Cross property just to the north of the Taft site, if it could be acquired by the National Park Service. This plan would keep parking off the Taft property, leaving the entire historic site free for preservation and restoration. [3]

In the 1970 master plan, the section devoted to "Factors Affecting Resources and Use," the 1968 Alternative Plan III emerged as the plan for development of the site. The 1970 master plan called for the acquisition by donation of the 0.28 acre (later determined to be 0.32 acre) lot to the north of the Taft property. The plan cited potential access to the property through the Hamilton County Detention Center as a future possibility, as well as the restoration of the southern view should the facility be removed to another location. The plan also noted that the lot to the north of the Taft property dropped some 25 feet below Auburn Avenue. "While this could present a problem in providing a connection to the Taft grounds, it would help set the parking on a lower level and thus makes it easier to screen. It is a challenging situation for an imaginative designer." [4]

During 1971, final arrangements were made toward the acquisition of the Cross property and the demolition of the building on the site. The path to this objective was a rocky one, but in the end, the mission was accomplished.

One of the stumbling blocks to demolition of the Cross building was the potential cost of relocating the families residing in the apartment house. On July 9, 1971, Charles R. Rinaldi of the National Park Service's Office of Land Acquisition and Water Resources informed Charles Taft that under the Uniform Relocation Assistance and Land Acquisition Policies Act of 1970 (passed on January 2, 1971), the cost of relocation would be $4,000 per family or $64,000 for the remaining 16 families. The Federal Government would be required to bear the cost if it needed to condemn the property. Therefore, Rinaldi recommended that Taft purchase the property from the owners, the Gerbus brothers, and donate the land to the National Park Service. Alternatively, the Federal Government could proceed with condemnation should Taft be unable to cover the expenses incurred by such a process. [5]

Taft initially balked at a direct purchase of the Cross property because of the high price he expected the Gerbus brothers to ask. Although the appraised value of the house was $35,000 to $37,000, Taft eventually purchased the property for $50,000 because the Gerbus brothers had a mortgage on the property at the higher price. [6]

While Taft was making final arrangements for the purchase of the Cross property, new objections to the plan were heard from another section of the National Park Service. During a visit in late 1971, two professional staff from the bureau's Washington Office, Historical Architect Hugh Miller and Historian Edwin Bearss, observed the site and were dismayed at the impending demolition of the apartment house. Miller, noting that the building dated from about 1885, thought that it was a typical building of its period and "thus is an important background building. It forms a buffer between the Taft house and a less distinguished modern building whose uninspired side elevation would be exposed to general view when the Cross property is removed." Miller cited the

present rhythm of building facades that establishes the residential scale of Auburn Avenue. The removal of the Cross building by the National Park Service would also create an unfortunate precedent at the time the community is attempting to create a historic district to preserve the historic quality of the neighborhood near the Historic Site.

Because the 1970 master plan gave no indication of the appearance or vintage of the house proposed for demolition, Miller suggested that as a matter of bureau policy, "photographs of buildings proposed to be removed and their environs should be submitted when master plans are reviewed." Miller further suggested that the Cross building, if adaptively refurbished, serve visitor, community and park support functions. [7]

Miller's views were confirmed by those of Historian Bearss, who voiced the opinion that if the Cross property was demolished, the National Park Service's position as "a champion of historic preservation will be compromised locally." [8] The Director of the Office of Archeology and Historic Preservation, Ernest Allen Connally, urged that the Cross building be studied for adaptive use before any request to demolish was submitted. [9]

In conveying the reports of Miller and Bearss to Park Manager Lissimore, Superintendent Birdsell suggested that Charles Taft not be shown the report. Birdsell recommended that Lissimore cover only the key points.

Despite the pleas of Miller and Bearss, the plans for the Cross building had progressed too far to be turned back. As Chester L. Brooks, Regional Director of the Northeast Regional Office, wrote to Connally, "The situation re the Cross Building is almost beyond recall because of arrangements previously worked out between the Director and Mr. Taft in accordance with master plan determination that the Cross building must be demolished." [10] In addition, Charles Taft arranged with the Mt. Auburn Good Housing Foundation and the City Redevelopment Department to find new residences for the tenants.

The National Park Service washed its hands of the affair. As Park Manager Lissimore stated to Charles Taft, "The acquisition and removal of the building under discussion is not an action of the Department of the Interior or its bureau, the National Park Service. " According to Lissimore, the "hands-off" role would continue to be its position until the Cross property had actually been "deeded over to the federal government for the completion of improvements necessary to properly interpret the birthplace." [11]

Coincident with the Cross property developments, the National Park Service contracted with the Ohio Historical Society to study the grounds and to conduct archeological investigations of the Taft property. In the summer of 1971, the Ohio Historical Society dispatched 29-year-old Major Charles Ross McCollough, Ph.D. to perform this work.


Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001