William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati (photo by Ohio Images)
Ohio Life

Visit the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati

Our 27th president spent his formative years at this hilltop residence in a neighborhood built for the city’s social elite. Today, the restored home shares his story. 

William Howard Taft is the only man in our nation’s history to have headed both the executive and judicial branches. When he died in 1930, The New York Times published a reverent obituary that detailed his swift rise and bitter fall as president, his splintered relationship with Theodore Roosevelt and his unprecedented comeback as chief justice of the Supreme Court.

“Of some public men, when they pass into the shadowed valley, it is said that they are the most admired of their generation; of others, that they are the most disliked or distrusted; but about Mr. Taft there is a universal agreement that he made himself the most loved,” wrote The New York Times on March 9, 1930, the day after Taft’s death.

A native of Cincinnati’s Mount Auburn neighborhood, Taft was born and raised at what today is 2038 Auburn Avenue. His father, Alphonso Taft, was the nation’s 34th attorney general and 31st secretary of war.

Alphonso Taft bought his Cincinnati home and 1.82 acres of land for $10,000 on June 13, 1851. Boasting eight bedrooms, the hilltop residence served as home not only to Alphonso and his wife, Louise, and their four children, but also his parents, Peter and Sylvia Taft, and two kids from Alphonso’s previous marriage to the late Fanny Phelps Taft. The family employed a handful of servants and also kept a horse, a pony, a milk cow and chickens on the property.

“Mount Auburn was the first suburb to be created outside of Cincinnati, only 1.5 miles north [of downtown] as the eagle flies. It was also known as Cincinnati’s Fifth Avenue — upper-class people moved up to the hills and away from the pollution of downtown,” says Kerry Wood, chief of interpretation at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

The future 27th president of the United States lived at the home before leaving for Yale Law School in 1874. Alphonso and Louise remained until they departed for California in the late 1880s. After her husband died in 1891, Louise continued to rent the house before selling it in 1899.

Although the exterior of the residence remained largely unchanged over the decades except for a modification to the porch that has since been reversed, the interior was divided into six apartments in the 1940s. Thankfully, Louise’s detailed description of the home in her letters provided a blueprint for the National Park Service’s restoration, which began in 1964 and continued until 1988.

“We had to look through their letters and grandpa’s journals to figure out which piece went where,” says Paula Marett, a park guide at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.

Visitors enter the home through what was once the Taft family parlor, decorated with portraits of Taft’s parents and grandparents, a Chickering piano and a William Sonntag painting depicting the Hudson River Valley. Down the hall, visitors find a quaint bedroom decorated with a crib, bed and wicker kiddie chamber pot. The space served as Taft’s nursery for the first seven years of his life. At age 7, he moved upstairs.

Today, that space is used as an extensive exhibition area, detailing Taft’s storied career on educational panels and displaying artifacts such as campaign memorabilia.

The year Taft left Ohio for Yale University, he said to his father: “You expect great things of me, but you mustn’t be disappointed if I don’t come up to your expectations.” The detail is included in a National Park Service brochure for the historic site. It’s hard to imagine he did anything but exceed what they hoped he would achieve.  

“Taft’s parents were big believers in hard work, education and integrity,” says Wood. “They were always striving to be the best.”  

Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; 2038 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati 45219, 513/684-3262, nps.gov/wiho

A version of this story appeared in our February 2016 issue.