The Fabulous Real Estate (And A Few Modest Digs) Of Past Presidents
The real estate owned or occupied by the presidents of the United States since George Washington have been as varied as the men themselves: some as cherished as Washington's Mount Vernon or Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, others as obscure as William Henry Harrison's Grouseland or Herbert Hoover's two-room cottage.
With Presidents Day at hand — officially George Washington's Birthday (observed) — here is a look at some of the fabulous residences that U.S. presidents have called home, before or after their stints in the White House. Excluded are the two best known, mentioned above, Mount Vernon and Monticello, in favor of equally interesting or architecturally significant places that are not as well known.
Also thrown in are a few more modest residences that might not be fabulous, but they are presidential all the same.
James Madison's Montpelier (Virginia)
Compared with Monticello, James Madison's Montpelier is off the beaten track, but not by much, since it is only about 20 miles to the northeast in the rolling Virginia countryside.
Madison's father kicked off construction of a four-room house in the 1760s, and James and his wife, Dolley, oversaw its expansion after the American Revolution, when he was not busy being the Father of the Constitution, with architects who had previously worked for Jefferson. Montpelier, now a National Historic Landmark, is on more than 2,600 acres.
After Madison's death in 1836, later owners expanded the property to about twice the size.
Since passing to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1983, the mansion has been restored to its smaller size — 22 rooms — and its appearance returned to when the Madisons were in residence, including the use of authentic material for the restoration, such as paint containing linseed oil and chalk, as it would have in the 19th century.
In the 21st century, Montpelier has become a leading center for research into the lives of the enslaved workers who lived there, about 100 in Madison's time.
The property's slave quarters have been excavated and restored in recent years, and last year "The Mere Distinction of Colour," a landmark exhibition about slavery at the plantation and elsewhere, opened there.
Andrew Jackson's The Hermitage (Tennessee)
When Andrew and Rachel Jackson moved into a two-story log house near Nashville in 1804, a structure originally built to be sturdy enough to withstand American Indian attacks, they had bigger things in mind.
Over the decades he lived at The Hermitage — Rachel died just days after his election to the presidency — the seventh president of the United States oversaw the property's expansion to a 13-room Greek Revival mansion.
Unlike many properties of its vintage, very little has changed at The Hermitage since Jackson died in 1845, and the house has been a museum longer than most, first opening to the public in 1889. Work in the 1990s restored the look of the interior, which features original furniture, wallpaper and family possessions.
Like Montpelier, The Hermitage has also been a recent focus of research into its enslaved African-American population, who largely worked to raise the more than 1,000-acre plantation's cash crop, cotton.
In April 1998, The Hermitage was very nearly damaged or destroyed by a tornado that struck Nashville. At least 1,000 trees on the estate were knocked down by wind, some of which Jackson himself might have planted.
Martin Van Buren's Lindenwald (New York)
While he was the eighth president of the United States, Martin Van Buren acquired a 36-room mansion south of Albany, but he did not live there until after he lost the election of 1840. The house had originally been built in 1797 in a Georgian style, but once Van Buren took occupancy, the former president proved to be an avid remodeler.
Among other changes, he moved the central stairway, enlarged many of the mansion's rooms, installed more than 50 wallpaper murals imported from France, bought expensive rugs and furniture, and even had an indoor bathroom put in — a novel amenity at the time.
Later, after Van Buren was less active in retirement, his son oversaw more changes, such as adding Gothic styling to the exterior and erecting an Italianate tower.
Though kicked out of office after a single term, Van Buren pined to return to the White House, and campaigned unsuccessfully for the presidency from the home he called Lindenwald twice, in 1844 and 1848. Such was the custom of the day; presidential candidates did not tour the country, trolling for votes. It was considered unseemly.
William Henry Harrison's Grouseland (Indiana)
Long before he spent his last 30 days alive as president of the United States in 1841, a younger and healthier William Henry Harrison was governor of the Indiana Territory in the first years of the 19th century.
The area, now including the town of Vincennes in southwest Indiana, was essentially wilderness when Harrison and his family arrived.
So the future short-term president had a house built, supposedly the first brick structure in Indiana. Patterned after the Harrison manse in Virginia — he was from a very wealthy family — the Georgian/Federal-style Grouseland still cuts an impressive figure in small-town Vincennes. The exterior walls were built sturdy enough to endure for more than two centuries, but most of the interior is a faithful re-creation, considering that after the Harrisons left, the property was given over the other uses, including a period as a barn.
One more detail: in one upstairs bedroom, there is an unrepaired and sizable crack in the wall.
It is the only damage to the interior walls that the longtime modern owners of the property, the Daughters of the American Revolution, decided not to repair. That is because the tremendous 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes make the crack, and so it might be the only visible relic anywhere of that long-ago event.
The Lincoln House (Illinois)
“I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington," President-elect Abraham Lincoln said in early 1861, speaking to the citizens of his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. One thing he was leaving was the only house he ever owned, which is now the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
The downtown house was built in 1839, and the Lincolns bought it in 1844 for nearly $1,500, a substantial sum at the time. Lincoln may have coyly called himself a country lawyer, but he was a successful one whose clients included railroads — the giant tech firms of their time.
Abraham and Mary Lincoln lived in the Greek Revival house for 17 years, until his election, expanding it to 12 rooms by adding a second story. Mary Lincoln did most the of the decorating, and the interior still reflects her tastes. In more recent times, it has been restored to its Mary Lincoln-designed appearance from 1860.
Lincoln was famously born in a log cabin. Decades after his death, a promoter went to rural Kentucky looking to buy the cabin and make money exhibiting it. He could not find the cabin, so he had one built that was kinda-sorta like the original, maybe including some of the same logs.
In 1909, the bogus cabin was put inside the marble memorial in Kentucky marking Honest Abe's birthplace, and for decades after was regarded as the real thing.
These days, the National Park Service acknowledges that the cabin is a fake, but it remains in place to honor the long-gone original cabin (and is a memorial to late 19th-century bunkum).
The Benjamin Harrison House (Indiana)
In the Old Northside Historic District of Indianapolis is the 16-room house that Benjamin Harrison had built in the 1870s, and it was from here — specifically the front porch — that he ran for president in 1888, often speaking to crowds on his lawn. He won an electoral college victory over Grover Cleveland.
Though he is not much remembered now, Harrison's handsome red-brick Italianate house still stands as a memorial to the Gilded Age president and his times. The interior counts as high Victorian, with much of the decor by Harrison's first wife, Carrie, who moved to Washington with him but died while he was in office.
The house, owned during much of the 20th century by the Arthur Jordan School of Music (now part of Butler University), has been renovated twice, most recently in the 1970s to restore its posh Victorian aspect. Unusually, that restoration also involved razing a handful of nearby nondescript buildings to allow the house to stand free in its original setting.
Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill (New York)
In 1884, a young Theodore Roosevelt hired the New York-based architectural firm Lamb & Rich to design a Queen Anne home for him on 82 acres in the Oyster Bay area. Roosevelt grew up in Manhattan, but had fond memories from his youth of spending summers in that part of Long Island. His first wife, Alice, died before they could move in, but eventually he settled there with his second wife, Edith.
Three of Roosevelt's children were born in 23-room Sagamore Hill — "sagamore" means "chief" in Algonquin, so Roosevelt was thinking ahead — the place was known as the Summer White House after he became president. It was the scene of peace talks that helped end the Russo-Japanese War and got Roosevelt a Nobel Prize, and the former president died there unexpectedly in 1919.
Part of the National Park Service since the 1960s, Sagamore Hill was renovated in the early 21st century. Among other things, it is furnished with gifts from foreign dignitaries and trophies from the president's hunts.
In the 1880s, and especially immediately after the death of Alice, Roosevelt lived in a rather different place from Sagamore Hill: a ponderosa-pine cabin in the Dakota badlands. There he was a working cowboy. He credited his time in the Dakotas in part for making him the man he later became, and for making him the first eco-minded president.
Known as Maltese Cross, for the brand nearby cattle wore, the cabin was moved around — including being on display at the 1904 World's Fair — but eventually came to the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, where it is today.
The Herbert Hoover Birthplace House (Iowa)
Before his ill-timed presidency, Herbert Hoover was many things: a mining engineer, self-made millionaire, resident of China, Australia and other places, savior of Belgium, and a highly successful Secretary of Commerce. He was not the owner of the kind of mansion one would expect of a wealthy man.
In the years after his presidency, he lived in a suite of rooms at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York until he died in 1964. So only one house associated with the 32nd president remains: the house where he was born, built by his parents in eastern Iowa in the 1870s.
The Hoover birthplace house is small. Really small: 280 SF. His parents were not particularly poor, but their Quaker faith taught them that modesty was best in all things. They had as much house as they needed, and no more.
In the 21st century, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site near West Branch, Iowa, includes a collection of 19th-century buildings moved from other parts of town to form a sort of young Hoover-era village: a half-dozen houses, a schoolhouse, a smithy, a Friends Meeting House and a barn.
All of these were put in the vicinity of Hoover’s birthplace cottage, a two-room structure. It is the only thing in the area that has not been moved.
The LBJ Boyhood Home (Texas)
While he was still a rising political star — and his wife, Lady Bird, was building a radio and TV station company that made them wealthy — Lyndon Johnson lived on his ranch in the Texas Hill Country, these days known as the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park.
In nearby Johnson City, Texas, is another unit of the National Historic Park, which includes the Johnson’s boyhood home, where he lived from age 5 until young adulthood.
The 1880s Victorian house is handsome and fairly spacious, indicating that Johnson's father, Samuel Ealy Johnson Jr., had some financial success. His father often entertained other local politicians on the house's large porch, within earshot of the boy.
During Johnson’s boyhood, none of the houses in Johnson City had electricity, including his family's house. That part of Texas was ultimately electrified through the efforts of Congressman Johnson in the 1930s, via a Rural Electrification Administration loan.
According to the LBJ Library, he wrote in a 1959 letter, “I think of all the things I have ever done, nothing has ever given me as much satisfaction as bringing power to the Hill Country of Texas.”