William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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Unlike many historic properties which come into the ownership of the National Park Service, the Taft home had been radically altered from its appearance at the time of its greatest historical significance. The condition of the home was further complicated by the 1964 "restoration" of the front facade that had been carried out under the auspices of the Memorial Association. The problem faced by the National Park Service staff was to determine the appearance of the building during the birth and residency of William Howard Taft. The answer lay behind the many later additions and partitions that had been erected. The architectural investigative process, therefore, required that the National Park Service staff be willing to tear apart portions of the house in the search for clues. The destructive nature of the investigations was necessary in order to trace the changes wrought by the property's many occupants. By the time the architectural investigations were completed, the interior lay in considerable ruin.

The two story square brick building with basement purchased by Alphonso Taft in June 1851 was altered within a few months of purchase. A three story 41 x 23 foot brick elI was commenced in September 1851. This addition contained bedrooms on the upper stories and a kitchen and dining room on the ground floor. During the following year, carpenters and painters completed the interior work and painting. Additional work in 1851-52 provided for interior plumbing and hot water. When Alphonso's second wife, Louise, moved into the house in early 1854, she set about refurnishing the house. However, she did not make major changes to the exterior or interior except for occasional repapering and repainting. [1]

The second major change to the Taft home while still in Taft ownership occurred after the fire of April 4, 1877. The fire destroyed the roof and gutted the entire second story. Rebuilding the house involved raising the upper story to a height of eleven feet and placing a galvinized iron cornice around the roof line. The windows at the second floor were lengthened and capped with wooden heads. A bay window was added to the south elevation. Other changes were made to rooms on the other floors as well, such as laying black walnut floor boards in the dining room. The rooms on the second floor were repapered and repainted. The parlor was given new frescoes and paint. The heating system was refurbished and rehabilitated. In 1878, Louise Taft placed a new mantle by Heinrich Fry in the parlor and a Rogers mantle in the library.

During the years when Alphonso Taft served as United States Minister to Austria—Hungary and later Russia, the house was repainted and repapered to suit the various tenants. Similar alterations were made to the interior finishes of the house for tenants after Alphonso Taft's death and when Louise Taft had taken up residence in Massachusetts. When Louise Taft sold the property in 1899, its appearance then was different from that of the period from 1857 to 1874, between the birth of William Howard Taft and his departure for Yale.

The next owners of the house, the Thompsons, made several changes to the house. One was the replacement of the original porch with a full-width porch. Another was the removal of the two-story wooden piazza in the angle between the original house and the ell addition and its replacement by a single-story conservatory. The next owner, the Ruffners, changed the uses of the rooms, especially on the first floor, and placed a wooden addition onto the north elevation of the house. By the time Bellinger purchased the house in 1940, the 1851 addition was already showing structural damage. He converted the house into at least seven apartments, three on each of the upper floors and one on the ground floor. In the conversion, he claimed that he had "stabilized the house" and undertaken the conversion in such a way that the "original formation of the house" was unspoiled. [2]

The 1964 restoration shortened or closed up several of the windows on all elevations and restored the original roofline of the house. The 1964 work substituted a brick parapet in place of the Taft period wood panelled parapet. The restored porch posts were not chamfered, while the Taft period ones were. The jigsaw decoration on the original house was more robust and had a deeper frieze than on the 1964 version. In addition, the basement windows on the north side of the Taft period house were not restored in 1964. In fact, they were closed up. The 1964 front door was an eight-panel "colonial" type rather than the original four vertical panel type with a three-light transom. The entrance steps rebuilt in 1964 were of limestone and brick, a combination that later architects found questionable. The observation platform was restored in 1964, although the observatory railing of 1964 was not of the same design as the railing of the Taft period. When the roof of the house was lowered to its original level, the stairs to the attic were removed, thereby obliterating evidence of the previous opening under these stairs.

When the National Park Service staff studied the house in preparation for the 1968 "Study of Alternatives," the house was described as painted in grey. The rear of the house was unpainted and in bad repair. Bellinger's first floor apartment was in a habitable state, but the rest of the house was described as being in poor condition. A recent fire had damaged the roof over the rear addition. [3] The 1970 master plan reiterated the poor condition of the house.

The first professional architectural investigation of the house was made in late 1971 by National Park Service Historical Architect Hugh Miller. He observed that the 1964 restoration, while executed to resemble the appearance of the house during William Howard Taft's boyhood, was "incomplete and not entirely accurate." The 1851 addition exhibited serious structural cracking, a condition he thought would require a concrete footing and grouting. At that time, Miller reported, "the architectural repercussions of restoration for the house museum would not be serious since the post-Taft addition and alterations should be removed as part of the structural rehabilitation of the house and the interior finish of the Taft period seems to be modest." [4]

By 1971, Architect Norman M. Souder of the Denver Service Center was assigned to prepare the architectural data section of the historic structure report, the companion to Edwin C. Bearss's historical data report. As issued in 1973, Souder's report dealt primarily with a detailed description of the existing conditions of the property and a discussion of the proposed restoration of the house to the 1851-1877 period. The report also presented a detailed photographic document of the house as it appeared in 1972 and commentary in each accompanying caption. Among Souder's recommendations was the removal of the Fry mantel in the parlor, purchased by Louise Taft in 1878, because it post-dated the 1877 cut-off period for the National Park Service interpretation of the property. Souder's configuration of the first floor during the historical period showed the south parlor sections separated by partitions, the nursery at the rear of the 1851 wing, and the dining room in the 1851 wing closest to the wall of the pre-1851 house.

Souder characterized his report as being more extensive than the "usual Historic Structures Reports for comparable structures." [5] This opinion was not shared by his successor Anthony Crosby, also of the Denver Service Center, who noted that the report had been "based on minimal fabric investigation conducted during a short period of time. . . . He assumed that a complete restoration was possible because he mistook many architectural features for the 1857-1874 period when they were in fact from the period after the fire in 1877." [6] Crosby's own investigations followed those of Gordie Whittington, a Denver Service Center exhibit specialist, who in 1977 investigated the seven rooms on the first floor then intended for restoration.

In the course of his investigations, Crosby revealed that the parlor rooms 101 and 102 constituted a single room during most of the historic period, although the room had originally been divided into two rooms by a partition with large swinging doors. [7] The partition was probably removed before 1857 when a mirror was hung over the piano between the two doors in the parlor. Crosby also determined the original configuration of the first floor of the 1851 addition. Now the nursery was placed between two small rooms that abutted the east wall of the pre-1851 structure and two closets opening onto room 109, the bedroom/sitting room. This floor configuration was discovered by an investigation of the "ghosts" still visible on floors, ceilings, and walls. Crosby had no doubt that the entire east end of the 1851 wing, room 109, was one large room until the twentieth century. [8]

Although Crosby's recommendations for partial restoration did not exactly conform to the plans as detailed in the 1981 master plan (for example Crosby's room 104 is devoted to exhibit space while in the 1981 master plan, room 104 is designated for refurnishing), it represented a great leap forward from the 1973 architectural study. The original configuration of the rooms, especially those on the first floor, was established, as were the probable wall finishes.

As the architectural investigations and master plan inched toward resolution in 1978, the Denver Service Center provided an estimate of the restoration of the Taft National Historic Site. The projected total development cost was set at $3,153,000. (The 1981 Master Plan revised this amount to $3,985,000, of which $1,024,000 was devoted to the visitor contact station. Other costs included $331,000 for structural stabilization, $438,000 for the restoration of the exterior and grounds, $1,200,000 for interior restoration, and $253,000 for furnishings.)

In order to implement the work at this level, the authorization level for the site had to be raised above the $318,000 amount in the 1969 legislation. [9] In the end, the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978 provided for a new ceiling of only $1,888,000. The spending level was lowered because as Robert Taft, Jr., reported, "[Senator] Hatfield got in a position where, because of sponsoring other amendments and the general Committee situation, he did not feel this was wise at this time, although he is in our corner." Robert Taft, Jr., thought that the balance might be forthcoming the following year. [10]

While in theory restoration work could not begin until the completion of the architectural investigations, human and natural forces conspired to allow for development work to commence. In 1974, after intense lobbying on the part of Charles Taft, $58,500 was made available to stabilize the house after plans and specifications prepared by Cincinnati architect William J. Miller. Completed in a matter of months, Miller's historic structures and site report encompassed a study of the land surrounding the site, a boundary survey, a discussion of the interior restoration of the house, a structural evaluation of the house, and a survey of existing conditions. Stabilization work, undertaken by the Fred L. Schille Co. of Cincinnati in the summer of 1974, addressed the property's most critical problems. Much of the foundation walls of the original block, including the north, south, and west (except for the porch), was encased in concrete. The brick of the original block was tuckpointed and painted, the west boundary wall and fence were restored, and the domestic water service was replaced. In addition, the rear wing was encased in a temporary plywood shell. The encasement stayed up until 1982. The location of the windows in the east wing was painted on the plywood so that viewers could get a sense of the appearance of that portion of the house.


Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001