By Brett Hall- Harding Home Presidential Site Staff
It’s time to put the questions to rest. No, that is not the gardener’s house. No, that is not the caretaker’s house. No, that is not a garage. What is that white house behind the Harding Home? That is the Press House, and that house has a long and important history here at the Harding Home Presidential Site.
That building was constructed for Warren G. Harding’s front porch campaign in 1920. After Harding decided to conduct a front porch campaign instead of a coast-to-coast style one by rail, the Harding campaign discovered that there were many logistical issues that needed to be resolved. How would people get to Marion? Where would they park their cars? How would the town be able to feed and house the extra 10 to 15 thousand folks visiting? Where would campaign headquarters be? And where would the press work? While the campaign was able to address these issues, the Press House would answer the final question.
The Press House was a simple but interesting addition. The press would need a place to work, but there was no need to put a lot of money in it since it would be torn down right after the election. At least that was the plan. George Christian Jr., Harding’s personal secretary in the Senate, already was renting his home to the Republican Party for $75 dollars a month to be used as campaign headquarters. The natural place to put the Press House was in the backyard of the Christian house.
The Press House itself came as a kit, with the plans and all the building supplies delivered to the construction site. The Press House, most likely paid by the Republican campaign, was built in a jiffy – just two days’ time. Strangely, the press itself disagreed on the layout of the Press House. One article described it as having two rooms; another article mentioned three rooms. Unfortunately, there are no photos of the interior. The Press House had telegraph lines, typewriters, desks, and chairs –everything that the press needed to type up their stories and send them to their affiliates across the county.
The members of the press called it “the shack.” The members of the press corps were from Republican newspapers, just as the press corps that followed Democratic nominee James Cox were from Democratic papers. Harding felt that having a good relationship with the press was vital to a successful campaign. The reporters were welcome to eat apples from the tress near the Press House and Harding himself even played horseshoes with the press in the dirt alley behind the Press House. Harding stopped by “the shack” twice a day to answer reporters’ questions. The New York Tribune described the Press House as “a bungalow in the back yard of headquarters that shelters the newspaper correspondents.” The Tribune reported that the Harding’s lovingly referred to the the task of speaking to the press at “the shack” as “the back porch campaign.”
Following Harding’s landslide victory, the Harding campaign became absorbed with building the administration and the Press House was never removed from the Christian property. Following the President and First Lady’s deaths in 1923 and 1924, respectively, the Press House was first used for storage as the newly born Harding Home museum opened in 1926. Later, it was converted into a garage for the museum caretakers. It wasn’t until 1980 that it became the mini visitor center that visitors know today.
With Harding 2020 ramping up and a new Presidential Library in the fold, what will happen to the Press House? The Harding Home will be closed and restored for all of 2018 and reopened in May of 2019. The site will close again at the end of 2019 and reopen in April of 2020. During that time, the Press House will be renovated to tell the story of the newspaper reporters who were part of a special time in history and helped tell the nation about the man who would become our 29th president.
Harding 2020 will tell the full Harding story, and the Press House plays an important part in it. A building that was unlikely to remain, still stands today; here to tell the forgotten story of the press and the last front porch campaign in American history.