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Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site
In 1867, Benjamin Harrison bought a double lot of land along North Delaware Street, in a newly fashionable suburban area at the outskirts of Indianapolis. This neighborhood, now known as the Old Northside, developed between the 1870s and the 1910s with a mix of large suburban houses, most with comparatively deep setbacks and tree-lined yards. Designed by architect Herman T. Brandt in the popular Italianate style, the two-and-one-half-story brick house was begun in 1874 and completed the following year. The house features a bracketed cornice, a low hipped roof, a multistory bay window, and tall, narrow, stone-hooded window openings, all common features of the Italianate style.
The house contains 16 rooms with interior features including an oak-trimmed walnut staircase, butternut woodwork, and parquet floors. The first floor contains an entrance hall, stair hall, parlor, music room (back parlor), library, dining room, kitchen, and service spaces. The front staircase features a hand-carved butternut balustrade and is continuous all the way from the first floor to the ballroom in the attic. A second stairwell, in the rear of the house, is modest in design and was used as an access way for servants. The second floor contains several bedrooms and the third floor originally served as a ballroom.
Harrison was born in Ohio in 1833, the son of John Scott Harrison and grandson of President William Henry Harrison. He attended Farmer’s College near Cincinnati and graduated from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio, in 1852. Harrison married Caroline Scott in 1853 and the couple moved to Indianapolis the following year, where he studied law and became a partner in a local law firm in 1858. He joined the Republican Party shortly after its formation in 1856. After the outbreak of the Civil War, Indiana Governor Oliver P. Morton requested that Harrison recruit the 70th Indiana Infantry Regiment, in which he served until 1865. During the election of 1872, Harrison campaigned to be the Republican nominee for governor, but lost. His law practice remained successful and he was able to undertake the construction of his comfortable suburban house shortly after the Panic of 1873. In 1876, Harrison replaced the Republican nominee for governor but lost the race to James D. Williams. From 1881 to 1887, Harrison served as a United States senator.
During the 1888 United States presidential election, Harrison emerged as the Republican nominee. It was in this house’s music room that he accepted the nomination. Harrison ran a “front porch campaign”—a strategy successfully employed by James A. Garfield in 1880 and later by William McKinley and Warren G. Harding—in which delegations were received at Indianapolis, including numerous speeches from the front stoop of his own residence. Although Harrison lost the popular vote by 90,000 votes, he achieved an Electoral College victory over Grover Cleveland. Harrison’s administration would be remembered for its work to address the problems of monopolies and trusts and for the designation of 22 million acres of national forest land. Harrison promoted several unsuccessful efforts to restore the civil rights of African Americans that had been suppressed during the 1870s and 1880s, but Congress defeated each measure. Harrison’s presidency included an era of technological advances, including the addition of electric lighting in the White House and the first audio recording of a U.S. president’s voice. Caroline Scott Harrison died of tuberculosis in 1892 and the couple’s daughter, Mary Harrison McKee, assumed the role of First Lady. Harrison’s 1892 re-election campaign was unsuccessful, with his predecessor Grover Cleveland winning the most decisive victory in two decades.
Harrison returned to Indianapolis and made several trips across the country. In 1896, Harrison married Mary Scott Lord Dimmick, the niece and former assistant to his late wife. That same year, he added a columned front porch to his house. Harrison died at home in 1901, in a bed that still remains in the house. Mary remained in the house for several years following his death. It was used as a boarding house from 1910 to 1936, when it was sold to the Arthur Jordan Conservatory of Music in 1939 with the agreement that the house be used to commemorate Benjamin Harrison. The Arthur Jordan Conservatory renovated the building, turning the second and third floors into a women’s dormitory and changing the first floor into a museum that exhibited furnishings from the house and items from Harrison’s presidency. When the music school merged with Butler University in 1951, the Arthur Jordan Foundation restored the house and opened it to the public, adding a small apartment for the housekeeper to the back of the second floor. The President Benjamin Harrison Foundation was created in 1966, and funded the renovation of the entire house for conversion into a museum. The construction of an elevated expressway to the south of the building and the demolition of the three other houses on the block have damaged the neighborhood context of the Harrison House, leaving it isolated in the middle of wide, open lawns.
In 1973, the Arthur Jordan Foundation began another restoration of the first floor, second floor, and attic. As with many restoration programs of the 1960s and 1970s, this work made use of stock wallpapers and fabrics, presenting a mid-twentieth-century interpretation of a Victorian interior rather than an approximation of the house’s historic appearance. The basement was adapted into a civic conference center and offices for the Foundation and museum curator. Steel beams were installed throughout the basement to improve the structural integrity of the building as well.
During the 2000s, the parlor, music room, and library underwent a scholarly restoration to interpret the house as it appeared during Harrison’s life. Wallpapers documented in historic photographs and in small remaining scraps were reproduced, a missing ceiling medallion was re-cast, and reproduction carpets were installed. The house retains one of the state’s most visited historic sites, with a wide range of programming and changing exhibits in the third-floor ballroom.
Bodenhamer, David and Robert G. Barrows, eds. The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Mendinghall, Joseph Scott, “Benjamin Harrison Home,” Marion County, Indiana. National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form, 1975. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
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