Ohio restoration expert offers tips on maintaining historical homes
Planning a visit?
The Harding home is closed from November to March (except by appointment), but it's open the rest of the year and offering a variety of activities in 2009. Visit ohsweb.ohiohistory.org to learn more.
by Liz Vernon
Looking for some tips on how to care for your historic home? Chris Buchanan may be able to give you some ideas.
As the restoration coordinator for the Ohio Historical Society, Buchanan works on projects statewide, including the 2,000-square-foot Queen Anne-style Victorian home at 380 Mt. Vernon Ave. in Marion, Ohio, located about 50 miles north of Columbus. But this home has a history that sets it apart from contemporaries: It was the home of President Warren G. Harding and his wife, Florence — as well as a wedding gift from the president to his bride and the site of their 1891 wedding.
Although the couple never lived in the house after Harding won the 1920 presidential election, it's slowly being re-created to look as it did during his famous front-porch campaign. Besides the room-by-room project, there's general maintenance to consider: Buchanan says the historical society has a maintenance staff as well as one person on-site to take care of smaller projects such as painting and plumbing. For the bigger projects, they hire general contractors. "We're very careful who we hire," he says. "We like to hire contractors who specialize in historical preservation work."
Outside the home
Behind the house is a cottage Harding bought from a Sears catalog, which was used as the press house (pictured above) during Harding's presidential campaign. Today, it serves as a museum and admissions office for the home.
About a mile and a half away is the Harding Memorial, which contains the tombs of the president and his wife. "Harding was president when the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument were being constructed," says Melinda Gilpin, site manager for the Harding home. "He actually dedicated the Lincoln Memorial. But he didn't want a monument - he wanted a simple grave under the trees and the stars."
Buchanan recommends owners take the same precautions: "Contractors may tell you they can work on historical homes, but many may not understand the sensitivity of keeping old things when you could replace them with new ones. They need to understand that you can restore rather than replace.
"Talk to the contractor and see some of their other work. Look at other historic homes they've worked on. If you're thinking of buying a historical home, there are lots of books and home tours, which are great ways to educate yourself."
Buchanan says people who own or are thinking of buying an older home should keep its past in mind. "A lot of times, people will buy new houses and renovate excessively, which will erase things about the house," he says. "Old houses have that aura, and you can inadvertently destroy it with heavy remodeling."
He offers a couple of specific tips: "Vinyl siding tends to kill the look of a house - it makes it look sterile, and the vinyl shell is bad for historic houses because you've got a vinyl shell on a house that's meant to be maintained. If water gets behind it, it can cause damage. And windows dramatically affect the look of the house. Old windows are usually very restorable. They often have too much paint and don't look or work right, but the better alternative is to have the paint stripped off and add storm windows."
The Harding home got its first makeover shortly before Harding's presidential campaign began. "There was some extensive interior wallpapering and upgraded plumbing, and they completed the electrical [installation]," says Melinda Gilpin, site manager for the Harding home. "They'd had only partial electricity until 1920. They also laid mosaic tile on the front porch, just for the campaign."
After winning the election, Harding and his wife moved back to Washington full time in 1921 and rented the home to a local family. "They had many offers, but Mrs. Harding refused to sell her wedding gift," Gilpin says.
Buchanan says the home has a couple of notable features. "Its technology is frozen in the 1920s," he says. "The Hardings appear to have updated it continually in the 20 years they were there, but in 1920, it pretty much stopped." The original heating system was replaced within five years after the home's construction, some of the plumbing structures were updated in the 1910s and the original gaslights with open flames were modified once electricity was installed.
The Harding home contains 98 percent of its original objects and has been open to the public since 1926. It was privately owned by the Harding Memorial Association until 1978, when it was turned over to the state of Ohio, which assigned management to the historical society.
"People who knew the Hardings when they lived there helped [the memorial association] set up furniture so it was very authentic," Gilpin says. "In the 1930s, one of [Harding's] sisters went through the house and wrote down all the furniture arrangements, so we have amazing evidence to recreate the interior of the house."
Harding died while in office in 1923, and his wife, who passed away the next year, donated the house and much of the couple's personal property to make it into a museum. And for a while, that's exactly what it was. "There were cases full of stuff on display," Gilpin says, "but it didn't really reflect the house as a home."
The Harding Memorial Association set out to change that, starting with a 1960s restoration, and when the historical society took over, they continued the renovations, repairing the front porch in 2003 and, in 2005, restoring the library to its 1920 appearance.
The former president's family is involved in some of the work. His great-nephew, Dr. Warren G. Harding III, says the family has helped with different projects, including getting a painting restored and having furniture reconstructed. "We try to help do things that might otherwise not be affordable," he says.
Harding III grew up in Worthington and still considers it home, even though he now lives in Indian Hill, a suburb of Cincinnati. He remembers his father's stories of visiting the president and his wife, who didn't have any children: "My grandfather was his younger brother, so my father and his siblings would go to Marion to visit. They considered them their favorite aunt and uncle. They were very good to them. [The President] taught my father how to swim in the creek, ride a bike, that sort of thing.
"I heard a lot of interesting stories about the home and where the Hardings came from. There's a special connection there. It's a memorial, but it also gives insight into what America was like at the time, and how President Harding lived. It's not a castle or Mount Vernon or Monticello, but it's a very unique place that gives you an idea of what kind of person he was."
More plans are in the works to keep the home looking the way it did when the Hardings lived there. "We feel, historically, it isn't how [the house] began in 1891, but how it looked during the campaign - we think that's very important," Gilpin says. "The exterior has looked the same since 1920, and we want the interior to [match]."
The organization hopes to have interior renovations completed by 2020, the 100th anniversary of Harding's campaign. They're paying for the projects through donations and fundraisers.
The home is a source of pride in the community. In fact, it's one of the biggest icons in the city of 35,000, according to Diane Watson, executive director of the Marion Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"Obviously, having a presidential home within the community draws people in, especially the presidential buffs," she says. "And especially in a place like Ohio, which has eight presidents who grew up or spent part of their lives here. It brings more of an economic impact to the area. I don't think there's anybody in town who doesn't know about the memorial."
Harding III likes what's being done to preserve his great-uncle's home - and memory. "Our family's lived in Ohio a long time, so we're very interested in Ohio history and politics and connect with it on a deep level," he says. "[The home] is a special place, and I'm pleased when people take the interest to find out [more]."