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Houses offer an honest glimpse into the lives of U.S. presidents

| Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Wheatland, James Buchanan's in Lancaster. Roger Strauss
George Washington's Mount Vernon Roger Strauss
Dwight D. Eisenhower's house in Gettysburg. Roger Strauss

Author Hugh Howard's biggest challenge in writing “Houses of The Presidents” wasn't deciding which houses to include.

It was in figuring out which to leave out.

“We had to make hard calls because it had to cost $40, not $80,” Howard says.

In the end, “Houses of the Presidents” (Little, Brown and Company, $40) offers an in-depth look at places that 22 of our 44 presidents have called home, plus shorter glimpses of 15 more.

Some, like George Washington's Mt. Vernon, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and Andrew Jackson's “The Hermitage” are formal and impressive.

Others, like the George W. Bush family home and the Bill Clinton's birthplace are unexpectedly modest and as familiar as our grandparents' houses.

Although early presidents came from wealthy families, many did not, Howard says. President Richard Nixon's birthplace was built from a kit. Newborn Clinton and his recently widowed mother shared a rented house with her parents.

For the most part, Howard says: “These are not the homes of the super rich.”

For each of them, Howard's text and images created by photographer Roger Strauss III use the interiors and exteriors to construct a picture of the men and their families and the era in which they lived.

They offer glimpses into the private lives of these very public men, whether it's the trio of televisions that President Lyndon B. Johnson used to simultaneously monitor the evening news at his home in Johnson City, Texas, or the game board at President Lincoln's cottage in Washington, D.C., where he and his son, Tad, played checkers.

“When you see how the people in these places are connected to their home sweet home, it has something to tell you about each of them,” Howard says.

In doing so, the book travels beyond the velvet-curtained drawing rooms and dining rooms with their formally set mahogany tables and allows us to poke about in more private spaces, such as the servants' dining room in Martin Van Buren's Lindenwald, the nursery in John F. Kennedy's birthplace and the kitchen of the one-story ranch house where future presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush once ate.

“I wanted to tell the story that connected the guy to the place,” Howard says. “What better place to do that than in somebody's kitchen.”

One of Howard's aims in creating “Houses of the Presidents” is to encourage readers to go and connect to these famous and sometimes long-dead people. So, the first criterion for inclusion in the book was that only houses that are open to the public would be used. To further that aim, a final chapter provides addresses, hours of operation and contact information for 54 locations.

“I want people to go and learn and make a human connection,” he says.

Howard and Straus also gave high importance to how visual the houses were as well as how abundant, authentic and interesting were the artifacts that filled the rooms.

“Most contained artifacts that would have had (the presidents') fingerprints on them,” Howard says.

In sidebars and essays, “Houses of the Presidents” takes a look at the wives, mothers, children, servants and friends in the men's' lives.

In addition to photographs both formal and candid, the book contains verbal snapshots.

There are vignettes of presidential wives Mamie Eisenhower and Eleanor Roosevelt, notes on the architectural plans drawn up by Jefferson and Van Buren and insights into the 2-year-old grandson who melted the heart of President Benjamin Harrison, whom many on his staff called “the human iceberg.”

Most readers are likely to dip into the book, choosing to read a chapter on a favorite president or allowing themselves to get caught up in the text that wraps around one of Strauss's beautifully composed photographs.

Others may opt to begin with George Washington's Mt. Vernon and progress page-by-page through the featured houses to the George W. Bush childhood Home in Midland, Texas.

“Readers who read it from start to finish will come away with a sense of the larger arc of history,” Howard says.

Alice T. Carter is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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