Houses offer an honest glimpse into the lives of U.S. presidents
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.