By Megan Neary of the Marion Star
Marion- Crowds once again filled the front porch that was once the focal point of President Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign of 1920 on Saturday. They were there for a free tour of the president’s old home at 380 Mount Vernon Ave., and for a glimpse of the restoration that aims to recreate the house as it was in 1920.
“Marion Day” was the official community kickoff for the Harding 2020 Fundraising Campaign.
Visitors had a chance to learn about the Harding Presidential Center, which will include an exhibit gallery, the President’s official presidential library, an outdoor courtyard area, a research room, administrative offices and multimedia classrooms. Efforts to raise funds for the Presidential Center are ongoing.
“We’re doing very well on fundraising,” Site Manager Sherry Hall said. “We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re doing fine.” The project is expected to cost $1.3 million.
The Ohio History Connection and Marion Technical College are working together on the restoration of Harding Home and the creation of the Harding Presidential Center.
Architect Fred Smith talked with excitement about the plans for Harding Home and the Harding Presidential Center. “We want people to see the house how it was when Harding was running,” he said. “It helps tell the story of the campaign,” he added.
The story of the campaign is a unique one. President Harding ran what was referred to as his “front porch campaign.”
As the name suggests, he campaigned, in large part, from his front porch. Crowds would gather outside his home to hear him speak.
In addition to private citizens who traveled to hear him, Harding — a former Marion Star owner and publisher — understood the importance of including members of the press in his audience. To assure himself a constant crowd of journalists, Harding built a press house in his back yard. The structure still stands today and will be part of the restoration process.
Harding also had an addition built onto the kitchen so that the journalists could be fed. This addition was torn down during a restoration in 1964 or 1965, when the team decided to return the house to its 1904 appearance. As part of the new, 1920-focused restoration, however, the addition will be rebuilt. “We’re gonna build it right back the way it was,” Smith said.
Telling the story of President Harding and his family is the primary focus of the Harding House Restoration and the Harding Presidential Center. The projects together are referred to as Harding 2020.
Doug Sweeney, development officer at the Ohio History Connection, looked at the easel that displayed an image of what the future center will look like and said, “I’m envisioning the day when my kids will come up here to the Harding Presidential Center. That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
“We’ll be able to entertain them by the busloads here,” Sweeney said. “Maybe entertain isn’t the right word,” he added. But a moment later, a child who was leaving the Home after a tour exclaimed, “That was fun!”
What makes touring the Harding Home “fun” is the human, personal way in which the Home’s history is explained. Chris Buchanan, restoration project coordination at the Ohio History Connection, stood in the home’s kitchen and explained the process of “finding clues” that allow for the proper restoration of the house. He spoke of examining building materials and carefully stripping layers of paint from the walls, but the clues he considers are not limited to physical evidence in the house.
For example, part of the process has included going through hundreds of Harding’s receipts for evidence of changes to the house and of what sort of appliances would have been there in 1920. A glance at the book of receipts on display in the kitchen also showed that Harding had bought some fish one day about a century ago.
Many of the exhibits that will be on display in the Harding Presidential Center will offer similar glimpses into Harding’s personal life. These exhibits will include an exploration of his early years and his time at the Marion Star. There will be exhibits telling the story of Harding’s wife, Florence Harding, and of the Harding’s family numerous contributions to the field of medicine.
Other exhibits will address Harding’s campaign and time in office. Smith understands that Harding is sometimes associated with scandal and he hopes that the Harding Presidential Center will change this. “People will come here and they’ll have this kind of negative perception perhaps… well, this will change their minds once they come through here, they’ll say, ‘That Harding, he was really forward thinking and he helped the nation heal after the First World War.’”
The scandal that Harding is often associated with is known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Essentially, Albert Bacon Fail, Harding’s Secretary of the Interior, secretly leased federal oil reserves and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in liberty bonds from an unknown source. Harding was never implicated in these transactions.
Sweeney’s dream of attracting busloads of visitors to Marion is mirrored by the hopes of donors.
“A lot of the people that are donating to this project are prominent citizens and they really hope this makes a big difference for Marion,” Smith said.
The idea that people travel to Marion as “historical tourists” was supported by a family that was at the Harding Memorial on Saturday morning. Six children and their father had traveled from Wisconsin to see the memorial. The trip was particularly significant for 10-year-old Harding Warner, who was named after the late president. The other children, McKinley Warner, 7; Quincy Warner, 7; Pierce Warner, 7; Ford Warner, 9; and Truman Warner, 12, and their father, David Warner enjoyed visiting the memorial as well.
According to Smith, attracting families like the Warners and encouraging them to stay in Marion in order to see everything the town has to offer will benefit the entire community.
“We’re hoping that it kind of has a ripple effect on the rest of the town,” he added.