William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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Furnishing the Taft home will be a challenge because the items in the house during the period of historical significance were dispersed in 1899 when the house was sold. When the house is completed and open to the public, the four rooms identified for complete restoration will be furnished with period pieces, selected on the basis of an analysis of the voluminous Taft family correspondence concerning domestic matters and a knowledge of furniture available at the time to a family of Alphonso Taft's position.

A core of Taft memorabilia was collected by the Memorial Association before 1960. Some of these items may be useful for furnishing the house. However, it is likely that such memorabilia will be best used in exhibit rooms interpreting the mature career and times of William Howard Taft.

The items included in the collection of the Memorial Association were not assembled in a systematic manner. As publicity swept through the Cincinnati newspapers in the 1960s regarding the impending lease of the Taft home by the Memorial Association, various individuals spontaneously sent Charles P. Taft items that related to his father. When Willa Beall was hired as executive director of the Memorial Association, Taft put out a clarion call for letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. He hoped that "some of these documents will have information about the appearance and decorations of the home during President Taft's boyhood." [1] Both the pre 1960 items and those accumulated during Charles Taft's period constitute the collection of the Memorial Association. Although the collection was available for inspection by the National Park Service in the late 1960s, it was not addressed in early plans.

The route to refurnishing the Taft home began in abstractions, but through subsequent research, gained greater detail and substance. The 1970 master plan for the Taft National Historic Site reflected congressional intent that the home would be restored and refurnished. The report recommended that the first floor south parlor, dining room, and bedroom be "accurately refurnished" and that the second floor parlor and library be "furnished in keeping with the period." [2] However, no guidance was provided on why these rooms were selected or how accuracy would be achieved.

The first serious endeavor to ascertain the nature of the furnishings in the house during the Taft occupancy was undertaken by National Park Service historian Edwin C. Bearss as part of his 1972 report, 'Historical Data--Home." Having plowed through sheafs of the Taft correspondence at the Library of Congress, Bearss provided excerpts from the letters regarding some of the rooms and their uses. He also extracted excerpts on furnishings and fixtures throughout the house as well as housekeeping and maintenance practices.

In 1974, as the new master planning process was launched, Superintendent Jerry Licari asked that the proposed furnishing plan be expedited in order to facilitate the preparation of a taped tour of the Taft home to be narrated by Charles P. Taft. Licari thought that Taft's age of seventy-six years and weakening health were factors in speeding up this plan. [3]

By May 1975, contract historian Sarah Olson completed the first draft furnishings report. Ellsworth R. Swift of the Harpers Ferry Center thought that the report provided "the known facts about the house furnishings, but ignores the gaps that must be filled in with intelligent guesswork." It was Swift's opinion that the draft report would facilitate the Charles Taft recorded tour, which would be similar to the recorded tours provided by Eleanor Roosevelt for Hyde Park and Rose Kennedy for the John F. Kennedy Birthplace. [4]

The 1975 furnishings study was regarded by Olson as a preliminary study based primarily on a resorting of key sections from the Bearss report to describe "every item of furniture documented as having been within these rooms." Based on her review of items from the Memorial Association collection, the only items that could be related to the pre-1877 occupancy of the house were family portraits. [5] As this preliminary report was integrated into the master planning process, Historian Bearss noted that "we know considerably more about the use and furnishings of most of the Taft house rooms in the period 1851-1877 than we do of those in the Lincoln Home and the Hoover Cottage." He also pointed out that David H. Wallace of the Harpers Ferry Center stated that "there was sufficient evidence available to refurnish the house to meet National Park Service standards." [6] Bearss's views were not universally held, as Historical Architect Hugh Miller referred to the "unknown historic furnishings and objects." [7]

As the master planning process proceeded, Sarah Olson, now staff curator at Harpers Ferry Center, made a more detailed search through the Taft correspondence at the Library of Congress. Based on this research, she drafted a report in 1979 that contained two sections: an analysis of historical occupancy and evidence of original furnishings, as documented in Taft family correspondence. [8] However, the "furnishings plan" detailing precise furnishings to be obtained and their location would not be completed until 1985. After reviewing the report, Historian Bearss restated his position on the adequacy of documentation for the Taft home furnishings. He noted that he recommended that more rooms be refurnished in the home than had been anticipated by the master planning team in 1979. "Although this recommendation may not accord with current National Park Service policy, this was not the dogma in 1971 when a decision was made to furnish the lower story, certain basement rooms, and the widow's walk. We should recall that ex post facto laws are unconstitutional." [9]

The indecision among National Park Service staff members regarding the refurnishing of the Taft home threatened to be reflected in the master plan. Acting Regional Director Randall R. Pope wrote to the Associate Director of Management and Operations in the Washington Office, Daniel J. Tobin, that "the master plan should clearly state which rooms we will furnish and which ones we won't. To do otherwise would put us in the position of not being candid as to what our plans are relative to furnishing." Pope reminded Tobin of congressional intent regarding the property and voiced the opinion that a "slightly liberal interpretation" of management policies on the subject of refurnishing could result in the draft master plan (which called for several rooms to be furnished) meeting policy. [10]

Tobin responded to Pope by stating that "we are strongly of the opinion that the house cannot be furnished within the framework of Management Policies." It was his understanding that congressional intent of the late 1960s was based on the belief of National Park Service staff at that time that sufficient information was available. Tobin asked Pope to furnish him with an indication of which rooms ought to be furnished, the level of accuracy available for each room, and whether or not the recommendations were in accordance with management policies. If they did not meet the policies, exemptions should be justified. The complexity of the issue led Tobin to add, "Because of the passage of time and our remoteness from the site, we find it difficult to keep the facts in this matter in focus." [11]

In order to resolve the quandary over refurnishing, John Demer and Sarah Olson of Harpers Ferry Center met with Chief Historian Harry Pfanz, Historical Architect Hugh Miller, and Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services David Dame of the Washington Office on March 11, 1980. The sense of the meeting was that documentation was sufficient only for the hallway (room 103), the nursery (room 106), the parlor (rooms 101 and 102), and the sitting room/library (room 104). Documentation was not sufficient for the dining room and kitchen on the ground floor. The group also recommended that 1861 serve as the "logical beginning date by which refurnishing should be guided." Documentation for gas fixtures installed in 1864 was available (and earlier light fixtures were undocumented). In addition, 1861 was the date when Louise and Alphonso Taft moved their quarters to the front of the house. [12]

Upon reading the summary of the March 11 meeting, Superintendent Fahy Whitaker urged that the bedroom and sitting room (room 109) be furnished rather than the library (room 104). "Since the exhibitry planned for rooms 104 and 105 will introduce the visitor to the Taft family and life style, this would be the ideal starting place." Room 104 could also serve as a holding room for visitors awaiting an interpreter. 'From there, the visitors will enter the historic environment," which would be continuous and cohesive. " Since the Congressional intent clearly mandates recreating this historic environment, it should be done effectively. A fragmented tour would be ineffective and unsatisfactory." [13]

On several occasions throughout the balance of 1980, Whitaker restated her position. On October 27, 1980, she wrote:

We are probably more anxious than anyone to have the entire matter settled and to see development take place at William Howard Taft. However, not if it means a disservice to the public simply because we are afraid to talk with the Washington Office policy division again. [14]

In January 1981, Acting Regional Director Pope concluded the debate by stating that the four rooms recommended in the March 11, 1980, meeting would be refurnished. The master plan and historic structure report, both being revised, incorporated these recommendations. [15] With this resolution, the Harpers Ferry Center staff proceeded with the development of a detailed plan for the rooms to be refurnished.

The 1985 historic furnishings report prepared by Olson provided an edited version of her 1979 furnishings report plus a section, "furnishings plan," that listed items to be acquired and their location in each of the rooms to be furnished. She also provided floor plans and elevations showing the arrangement of the items in each room. In the report, she noted that implementation of the furnishings plan would require an assessment of the collection of objects accumulated by the Memorial Association. Recommendations would need to be made concerning the other items in the collection that bore no direct association to the home. [16]

The objects collected by the Memorial Association number in the thousands. Most of the items were received with no records of the donor or the source. Thus, any records of the Memorial Association retained by the National Park Service or elsewhere gain added significance for the information they may hold pertaining to the objects. The complexity of the collections is further enhanced by the National Park Service, which since 1970 has added new items. Few of the National Park Service acquisitions were accompanied by records. Both collections were commingled, adding to the confusion and lack of provenance. An initial "scope of collections statement" was not prepared until 1983 and a museum cataloguing system was not instituted until 1984. The greater part of the combined items are stored in two locations. A storage warehouse in Harrison, Ohio, holds architectural elements removed during the restoration process. The balance of the objects is stored in a warehouse in Cincinnati.

In order to evaluate the relevance of these objects to the Taft site, the current collections policy for the site states that they will need to be accessioned, evaluated for their possible use in the interpretation of the property, and then retained or deaccessioned. The objects retained for their relevance to the Taft home are those that are associated with one of five catagories: 1) furnishings and objects actually used in the Taft home between 1857 and 1877, 2) objects directly related to the career of William Howard Taft, for exhibit and research purposes, 3) archival materials related to the historic period of the home or of Taft's career as well as the records of the Memorial Association, 4) architectural elements removed during the restoration of the house and not intended to be placed back in the house, and 5) a library of Taft and Ohio-related publications. [17]

Although the massive collection of furnishings and objects will likely yield some items useful to the purposes of the Taft home, a great number of items will need to be acquired by the National Park Service. Many of these items were identified in the 1985 historic furnishings report and were included in the "Gifts Catalogue" of the Friends of William Howard Taft Birthplace. Included among the items to be acquired are rosewood chairs and sofas, a rosewood square piano, a Gothic Revival walnut chair, and mirrors. When the appropriate furnishings are assembled and placed in the rooms to b recreated, the gifts catalogue promised that "visitors will glimpse the same formal setting the Taft guest experienced more than a hundred years ago!" [18]


Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001