Cincinnati, OH: William Howard Taft National Historic Site

Remember how I said on my post on Rutherford B. Hayes’s house that if I could drive, I would hightail it down to Cincinnati to see Taft’s house? Well, I didn’t suddenly learn to drive or anything, but I was accompanied on this trip home by Marcus, who can drive, so although I didn’t head directly there, I did manage to finally squeeze in a trip to Cincinnati. I was visiting the US over my birthday, which I used as the perfect excuse to do something I’d been dying to do since I read about it, which was to travel to Southern Ohio and complete the Donut Trail (of which more in a later post), and while we were down there, spend some time in Cincinnati, which despite growing up in Ohio, I had never visited.

  

We went to Taft’s house (or the William Howard Taft National Historic Site Ohio as it is more properly known) first thing after arriving in Cincinnati, because it was about a four hour drive down, not counting our stops for doughnuts and Grandpa’s Cheese Barn, and they shut at 4:45, with the last guided tour at 4. The site is run by NPS, and is free to visit. They only give tours every half an hour, and we had just missed one (honestly, I was hoping to miss it because I really had to pee and wouldn’t have been able to cope if I’d had to walk around a house first), so after a quick toilet break on my part, we were shown a short video about Taft’s life, and spent some time looking around the displays in the education centre opposite the house, which were mainly about Taft’s “goodwill tour” to Japan, the Philippines, and China, undertaken when he was Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, which meant he was accompanied by the irritating sounding Alice Roosevelt (I have to admit that I might have liked Alice better for her rebelliousness if she hadn’t been such a bitch to poor Eleanor, but in various anecdotes she does just come across as a massively unpleasant person. Not that I’m really one to talk). This trip was undertaken to make new trade agreements and help end the Russo-Japanese War, and also helped usher in the age of American empire. Other than the exhibition, the most memorable thing in here was undoubtedly the animatronic version of Taft’s son Charlie who told various stories about his father when you pressed a button. I would have preferred an animatronic Taft himself, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at any kind of animatronic.

  

When it was time to tour the house, we headed over with the volunteer who had put on the video for us. As is not uncommon at NPS sites, we were the only people on the tour (to be fair, it was the middle of a weekday, and I don’t think Taft’s house is one of their more popular attractions), which I didn’t mind because at least we didn’t have to listen to a load of questions from fellow visitors. Although I keep calling it “Taft’s house”, it was really just his boyhood home, so “the Tafts’ house” would probably be more accurate. Taft’s father, Alphonso, was a judge and politician (he also helped create the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, which has notoriously produced a number of presidents since its foundation), and William very much followed in his footsteps. William was the product of Alphonso’s second marriage – he married Louise Torrey of Boston after his first wife died, and brought her back to Cincinnati with him. Apparently the Tafts, while certainly comfortable, were not particularly wealthy, and the house, while good sized, wasn’t really all that large for eight people, plus a few servants (Alphonso had two surviving children from his first marriage, and he and Louise had four children who survived infancy). The volunteer told us that they had a constantly rotating nursery, as the oldest child would move out from the nursery when the youngest was born, and move upstairs to the room of his older sibling, who would have departed for university by then (this worked pretty well due to the age gaps between the first and second sets of children). Mount Auburn, the area where the house is located, is evidently nowadays a fairly poor neighbourhood, but it was solidly middle class whilst the Tafts were living here, though there was apparently a divide between Irish and German immigrants, so typically homes would have either all Irish or all German servants, to discourage fighting. The Tafts bucked this trend, and had a mix of both (they especially wanted a German nanny, since they thought she would be stricter than her Irish equivalent).

  

There were only about four or five rooms downstairs, of which the parlour was the most noteworthy, as even though it wasn’t terribly big, it used to be even smaller, being divided into a men’s and women’s parlour. However, all that Louise Taft wanted for a wedding gift was a piano, and after it was purchased, they realised that neither of the parlours were large enough for it, so they knocked out the wall and the two rooms became one (and now I’ll have the damn Spice Girls stuck in my head for the rest of the day). There were some crazy long drapes in here, which was evidently the style at the time (though rather ugly), and the wallpaper and upholstery matched the drapes.  I also liked the children’s fireplace, decorated with storybook tiles (shown above), which was installed tile by tile by the children’s grandfather to commemorate every time he and the children finished the story that goes with each tile (there were a lot of storybook tiles being produced in England at that time), which I thought was rather sweet.

  

One of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a museum, as have all the upstairs rooms, which we were free to wander at our leisure, so the tour portion of the house didn’t actually take very long. The museum rooms were actually my favourite part, and they contained a few great artefacts, including an amazing (and amazingly expensive) law desk used by Alphonso, a lot of excellent Taft cartoons (mostly spurred on by the conflict between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, after Taft refused to become Roosevelt’s flunky once in office), and a massive chair belonging to Taft. I have to admit that one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Taft is because he was America’s fattest president (one of these years, I do want to host a completely tasteless “Girth of a Nation” President’s Day party celebrating all of America’s largest presidents (except Trump, even though I’m quite sure he’s not far off from Taft weight-wise)), although the story about him getting stuck in the White House bathtub is apocryphal – a new bathtub was installed during Taft’s presidency (as can be seen near the end of the post), but it wasn’t because he got stuck in the other one.

  

Although Taft was an unremarkable president (which angered Theodore Roosevelt so much that he formed the Bull Moose Party just to run against his one-time protege), he seems to have been a reasonably pleasant person, and by all accounts, a surprisingly elegant dancer. He had a fairly interesting life as well, serving as a governor of the Philippines before becoming president, where he (at least according to the museum) did his best to fight against the prevailing racism towards the Filipino people at the time. Most notably, Taft got to live out his lifelong dream of becoming a Justice on the Supreme Court when he was made Chief Justice by fellow Ohio president Warren G. Harding in 1921 (never mind the slightly corrupt bargaining that got him there). I definitely can’t say I agreed with most of Taft’s decisions, but for better or worse, he was instrumental in shaping the Supreme Court into what it has now become (at the time he started, they didn’t even have their own building. This may have been good for Taft, as he managed to slim down quite a bit simply by walking to and from work every day, a distance of 3 miles each way).

  

Although there wasn’t a tonne of information in here about Helen “Nellie” Herron Taft, his wife, she seemed to have been an interesting person, as First Ladies tend to be. She traveled with him and their three children to the Philippines, and did her best to respect the local culture by learning Tagalog and inviting locals to events. She was responsible for many firsts, including being the first First Lady to ride in the inauguration parade, the first to fight for better standards in the workplace, the first to own and drive a car, and the first to publicly support women’s suffrage (and the first to smoke cigarettes, but that’s not really a good thing); but she is probably best remembered as being responsible for planting Japanese cherry trees around the Capitol (they were a gift from Japan, and she and the wife of the Japanese ambassador personally planted the first two saplings, though I’m quite sure gardeners did the rest!).

  

Though Taft’s house wasn’t anything like the extensive home/museum complex that was Rutherford B. Hayes’s site, which was what I was hoping for (nor was Taft smoking hot like Rud, but I already knew that), it was still an enjoyable enough experience, and I’m glad I finally got to see the childhood home of one of our truly “larger than life” presidents at last (poor Taft. I’m really trying not to fat shame, but it’s difficult when that was basically his defining characteristic, even during his presidency. When I did a unit about him in AP US History in high school (we focused on a different president every week, which is one of the reasons I’m into presidential history today), our teacher told us to remember him by saying his name backwards, which is T-fat, so that’s how I refer to him more often than not). I picked up a pin from the shop, and they had some nice general presidential merchandise as well. As always at NPS sites, everyone working here was very welcoming and friendly, and I do hope they get more visitors than were there on the day we visited (I think they do get frequent visits from local schools, though those are probably in the morning) so they can stay open, since they’re the only Taft site I know about! (I don’t know exactly what happened to the house he lived in as an adult, but I assume it’s no longer standing.) 3/5.

  

13 comments

  1. Happy belated Birthday! I hope it was wonderful and that the day was filled with the best of the Donut Trail.
    Hear, hear on Alice – she does sound incredibly irritating. I’d have given her a wide berth.
    Gah! Those drapes are really ugly. And that’s a particularly naked-looking bust by them. That’s not supposed to be Taft, is it? Looks too thin and un-moustache-y. Maybe Alphonso?
    Oh my god, I love the children’s fireplace! What a lovely idea to commemorate their reading time. And it’s nice to think the strict nanny was countered with a (presumably) loving grandfather. My parents actually have a similar old mantelpiece and tiles – except theirs are blue and white and have themes from Shakespeare and Aesop’s Fables. It’s one of my very favourite things in the world.
    I love the photo with the Taft cut-out. You both look super charming 🙂

    1. Thank you! I actually did the Donut Trail the week before my birthday, but my actual birthday was full of cheese enchiladas and cake, which was probably better than the Donut Trail, since it didn’t leave me with a horrendous stomachache.
      I think it may well be Alphonso, since it looks a lot like the portrait next to it, which is Alphonso. Definitely not Taft, who was chubby even as a young man.
      Yes, their grandfather lived with them, and he sounds like he was loving, though he died when William was only 10. Your parents’ tiles sound great too! My fireplace just has vaguely Islamic blue and white floral tiles. They’re perfectly fine, but not that thrilling. Of course, since we rent, I didn’t get to choose them or anything.
      Thanks! I thought I looked kind of terrible in that photo, but I didn’t have another one of me and Taft.

  2. This sounds like a very interesting place. All I know about Taft is he was on the US Supreme Court and the naturalist John Muir didn’t like him as much as Theodore Roosevelt. The Girth party sounds like a plan!

    1. I didn’t know that John Muir was chummy with either of them to be honest, though it makes sense in the case of TR, as he was pro-conservation. I just need to find people who want to actually attend my Girth of a Nation party – I even have a cookbook with all the presidents’ favourite foods in it, so I’m all ready to go; though being a vegetarian, I’ll probably have to stick with a dessert buffet, since everything else is pretty meaty!

    1. I have to admit that everything I know about Xenia, other than the tornado, comes from the movie Gummo, which is probably not the best source, so I didn’t realise they founded that area. I associate doughnuts more with the Amish than Quakers I guess!

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