William Howard Taft
Administrative History
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The bottom line in any "restoration" project intended for public visitation is its interpretive value. A property's historical message is the single factor which transcends all other considerations--a property with little or no interpretive value would hardly be worth a massive effort to protect, rehabilitate, and preserve it. How the property's historical message is presented is thus of great importance and is the motivating force behind decisions about documentation, furnishings, architectural restoration, and use. A property's message is conveyed through the appearance of the property in its setting, through the restoration of seemingly minor details, through the placement of furnishings in a room, and through exhibits, brochures, and other publications. Interpretation at many historic properties is further enhanced by guides, sometimes costumed, who verbalize the importance of features encountered in a tour.

The Taft home evokes a strong message about a birth and boyhood in an influential family that led to a career of remarkable achievement. While properties associated with the childhood years of famous people may strike some as less important than properties associated with an individual's mature years, the origins of the nation's leaders have always riveted the public's attention. Such properties have provided physical sustenance to the lesson of the American dream where a baby born in a log cabin could become President of the United States. While Taft's boyhood was certainly played out in an atmosphere of affluence and ready political connections, the circumstances alone could not foretell a career of national leadership. Thus, the public is drawn to the story of Taft's parents and the special family life they created for their children.

The chronology of Taft's career was recounted in the 1968 master plan produced by the staff of the Philadelphia Service Center. However, in the "resource evaluation " section, the report was decidedly negative in its "evaluation" of Taft's career. "Taft was not an innovator, nor did he have the charisma marked in many of our greatest political leaders and statesmen. He was neither a great president nor a great chief justice; in both positions his record was one of solid, if unspectacular accomplishment." [1] There was little other interpretive material provided in the 1968 report.

The 1968 report's disparaging view of Taft evidently had no effect on congressional support for the legislation creating the William Howard Taft National Historic Site. The speeches given by the congressional supporters were filled with admiration for Taft. In the congressional reports that accompanied the legislation, the purpose of the site was to interpret the environment in which Taft spent his formative years as well as his accomplishments as an adult. The interpretive mandate was a broad one that exceeded the boyhood focus, to include the Taft family, as constituting Taft's early environment, and Taft's career.

The 1970 master plan repeated the negative evaluation of Taft's career found in the 1968 report as it set out the educational purposes of the property: "To communicate effectively the story of William Howard Taft's life here, and the role of this total environment in molding his character and philosophy, thereby shaping his career and accomplishments in public service." The property would provide "the visual setting and the intangible climate of family in which the future President was brought up, and to achieve interpretation of the life and importance of William Howard Taft through a combination of interpretive media." [2] The negative evaluation of William Howard Taft's career may have influenced the thinking of National Park Service personnel who were not historians and who wondered why so much effort should be invested in the planning and development of the birthplace of an individual perceived to be one of the country's lesser Presidents.

In response to the 1974 management objectives for the Taft National Historic Site, Denver Service Center staff members Nan V. Rickey and James L. Massey prepared several drafts of an interpretive plan. The July 1976 interpretive prospectus covered William Howard Taft's parents, his boyhood environment, and his later career as Governor of the Philippines, President, and Chief Justice. In depicting the times during which Taft lived, the report stated, "It was Taft's misfortune to be born in a generation that was to experience the most halcyon days of this nation's history. The years between 1877 and 1912 were not marked by issues of watershed importance." [3] The visitor contact facility was intended to provide information on Taft's national political career.

In the late 1970s, an undated interim interpretive prospectus was produced to serve as the interpretive guide for the site until restoration. The report outlined six interpretive themes that could be communicated to visitors: Taft's boyhood and family life, Taft's character, Taft's national prominence, history of the period spanning Taft's life, the National Park Service and its mission, and environmental education. This report incorporated all of the possible angles on the property that were discussed in the draft master plan.

A complimentary view of Taft's career finally was presented in the 1981 master plan. "William Howard Taft brought a special brand of conservatism, integrity, and respect to all the posts he held. These admirable qualities were bred into him as a child and were nurtured by the traditions of his family during the years of his youth." [4] The interpretive program as outlined in the 1981 plan was premised on the construction of a visitor contact station on the adjacent property to the north, formerly referred to as the Cross property. According to the plan, the house itself "offers a physical setting for illustrating the values assimilated by Taft during his youth." All other aspects of Taft's life were to be interpreted in the visitor contact station "to avoid the implication that this was a president's home, or that Taft lived here during any part of his career." [5]

The 1981 plan's interpretive outline placed greater reliance on the guided tours and audiotours narrated by Charles P. Taft. The audiotape would be anecdotal in character, cover the Taft family life, and allow visitor to "feel as if they really know the family and understand their values and goals." This reliance on guided and audiotours relegated the house and furnishings "as the backdrop to enhance the theme." [6]

The "interpretive prospectus" published by the National Park Service in 1982 again designated the planned visitor contact station as the primary point of interpretation of Taft's career. Until a permanent structure could be built, the report recommended a wayside exhibit shelter. The historic resource, the house, was to be the location of the interpretation of the environment into which Taft was born and raised. The report set forth the values embraced in the house, such as high standards, expectations of excellence, atmosphere of love and understanding, joy of living, and enthusiasm for recreation. The report went on to contend that Taft's life extended over a "tranquil" period of American history, which was " not marked by great issues." [7]

As outlined in the plan, the interpretive objectives included an understanding of the William Howard Taft boyhood and family life, Taft's career, the impact of Taft's public service on the nation, the continuing role of members of the Taft family in American life, and the preservation process as exemplified by the property itself. Out of these objectives, the report recommended that the visitor carry away two essential lessons: that Taft's adult life was influenced by his boyhood and that the values he received from his family were applied throughout his career. [8] The report then traced the visitor's path through the first floor, suggesting the nature of the oral presentation or exhibits at various locations throughout the route. The report concluded with a discussion of the various types of groups that might be interested in the property, a general outline of the planned visitor contact station, and suggested interpretive publications to be distributed or sold at the site.

The broad interpretive mandate for the Taft National Historic Site allows for the site to transcend the boyhood story. It provides for a discussion of nearly a century of American history, from the westward movement of ambitious New Englanders in the 1830s to the onset of the Great Depression in 1930. Contrary to planning documents, this era is filled with social upheaval, wars, strife, and aggression. When viewed in this way, the property becomes a vehicle for the exploration of major events in American history through a single family and its best known member. Because of the location of the property, it can also be related to the growth of the Mt. Auburn neighborhood and other aspects of local history. The role of the Taft family in Ohio politics is a window on state history. If carefully presented and interpreted to the public, the Taft National Historic Site has the potential for becoming a powerful communicator of American history from 1830 to 1930.


Last Updated: 27-Feb-2001