Harding at Home
In 1920, Warren G. Harding campaigned for president from his front porch in Marion. You can tour his home and visit the Presidential Library & Museum that puts his legacy in a new light.
Striding up the steps and taking a seat in one of the inviting wicker chairs arranged in a circle on the front porch, it’s easy to envision our nation’s then-soon-to-be-29th president walking through the doorway on his way to greet the elbow-to-elbow crowds that gathered outside his home during the summer and fall of 1920.
On a warm morning in late May, the whoosh of cars and trucks passing by on Mount Vernon Avenue are the only things that disturb the silence as a dozen of us prepare to step inside the home that Harding and his wife, Florence, lived in during his years as the owner of The Marion Daily Star newspaper and his time as U.S. Senator.
It was from here that Harding trumpeted his “return to normalcy” after World War I, as he instituted a front-porch campaign in which voters traveled to the city of Marion to hear the Republican candidate for president deliver scheduled remarks. Fellow Ohioan James A. Garfield had pioneered the front-porch campaign 40 years earlier, but Harding was the last presidential candidate to use it, hoping it would show people he was a small-town businessman.
“People would come here from all across the country, primarily by train, and gather on the lawn to listen to him speak from the top step over here,” explains tour guide Shannon Morris. The grass was graveled over in the event of wet weather, but Morris is quick to add that it never rained on any of Harding’s speech days. Over the course of his three-month presidential campaign, more than 600,000 people showed up to hear him speak.
After the brief introduction and the rules about visiting the home (stay together, no photography or recording devices), Morris leads us inside. The house seems small compared to what one would imagine a presidential candidate living in today. The interior is packed with artifacts original to the Harding family as well as a few period-accurate furniture re-creations and fun discoveries, like the stained-glass window in the parlor that appears to have the shape of buckeyes worked into its design.
The brief tour is interesting and intimate — the kind of experience that makes one feel deeply connected to the people who resided here and the time in which they lived. But the meticulously restored home is just part of the experience when visiting Marion’s Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites. There is also the new Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum. Between them is the Hardings’ yard with walkways, a small cottage that served as the workspace for 17 journalists during the 1920 campaign (it will eventually house a permanent exhibit focusing on them and the relationship between press and president) as well as apple trees like the ones that grew here in the 1920s.
“We want people to explore the grounds,” says Sherry Hall, site manager of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites. “We planted these baby apple trees because the journalists working here reported that the Hardings had them and they would snack on them.”
The Presidential Library & Museum is a beautiful and informative space that offers insight into Harding’s 29 months in office prior to his untimely death. The first phase includes the lobby, gift shop, exhibition gallery, event space, catering kitchen, collections storage and restrooms. A second phase will include the addition of administrative offices, a conference room, research center and secure stacks storage. The latter will house all of Harding’s personal papers, which are currently residing at the Ohio History Connection in Columbus. When both phases are complete, the building will span 12,000 square feet.
Its stately entrance columns recall the White House, U.S. Capitol and Ohio Statehouse, all places Harding served, as well as the design of his final resting place — the Harding Memorial, located less than 2 miles away.
Upon entering the library and museum entrance, visitors encounter a large presidential seal inlaid in the floor under a lobby skylight, along with portraits of Warren and Florence Harding created by California-based artist and Marion native Danny Day.
“We wanted it to feel warm because the Hardings’ personality — especially Warren’s — was like that,” Hall says of the inspiration for the building, which was designed by Ohio History Connection architects Fred Smith and Beth McFarlane with consultation from Columbus’ Korda/Nemeth Engineering and input from Marion’s GPD Group architects. “We wanted not to overpower the house or the neighborhood.”
The exhibition gallery offers an expansive view of Harding’s life, from his boyhood as a child of the Civil War generation to his time in newspapers to his entry into politics and his quest for the White House. Authentic artifacts are deftly mixed with interactive displays and captivating historical photographs that show the Hardings’ humanity.
Deep in the gallery hall, an exhibit details the cross-country train trip that took Harding through the American West and up to Alaska in what would be his last action in office before suffering a heart attack and dying soon after. A small theater built to replicate a train car of the era invites visitors to take a seat to watch a video of authentic newsreel footage from what was known as the “Voyage of Understanding” and trace its progression across the continent.
Nearby, Harding’s chair from the Oval Office sits alone on a raised platform in front of large photo of it at his empty White House desk taken the day after his death. Panels detail his wish to be buried in a simple grave under a tree and beneath the open sky.
Harding had his share of controversy to be sure, but his legacy was also tainted by rumor and untruths following the death of Florence Harding in 1924. The Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum aims to show visitors who the Hardings really were and present their legacy based on fact. A display in the exhibition gallery addresses the truth of much-discussed scandals, such as Teapot Dome and Harding’s lengthy relationship with a local married woman named Carrie Fulton Phillips, so visitors can make up their own minds about this president, who had popular policies but fell out of public favor after his death.
“We want people to think about legacy,” says Hall, adding that the positive aspects of Harding’s presidency are often buried by the more salacious tales. “He does have a story and he deserves to have the right story told — the whole story.”
The Harding Home and the Harding Presidential Library & Museum are located at 380 Mount Vernon Ave., Marion 43302. The Harding Memorial is located at 966-870 Delaware Ave., Marion 43302. For more information, call 800/600-6894 or visit hardingpresidentialsites.org.