First Ladies National Historic Site

Worth a visit, but underwhelming; remember to use your National parks pass!!

You know how pretty much every former US President has gotten a memorial or (at least since Herbert Hoover) a library, well this fairly new National park is a museum (consisting of two, not quite adjacent buildings) dedicated to the women behind the men… i.e., all our unsung first ladies. It was established, in order to fill that gap, around the year 2000, and consists of the historic (from 1878-1891) home of Ida McKinley (whose husband’s memorial and museum are about 5 minutes away by car), and a nearby former bank (built 1895 — so after her family had already moved out); the former bank now holds a small collection of first ladies dresses, etc., and a library/research section (on its upper floors).

The Museum is pretty easy to find, and there is free parking. However, one of the more disconcerting things about this site, at least to me, was how the area is arranged; the lot is adjacent to Ida McKinley’s house but blocking your entrance is one of those vertically swinging gates. When you get there you have to ask (via a microphone) to be allowed in, and will be asked to verify that your intent is to visit the site — I get why they do it, but it is pretty unusual, all things considered. Then you will discover, confusingly, that the building you need to go to first (it’s where you pay your fee and are then led around by a docent) is NOT the house you just parked next to, but rather, it’s the former bank building which is on the FAR side of an adjacent hotel&parking-structure. And, if you happen to be cutting it close till the tour, as I was, and have any trouble walking (as I do), then it can be quite the trek. However, and I learned this afterward having already left the site entirely, there are actually quite of few first ladies dresses and things of that sort on display in the hotel, so you should try to either time your arrival so that you have a chance to see those — either before a tour, or otherwise try to remember to do it before driving away afterwards (the docents were NOT the ones who told me about it, so odds are they won’t remind you either).

In the bank building (where you are NOT allowed to take pictures) you’ll pay your fee, don’t forget to use your national park pass if you have one, and be led to a back ‘library’ to watch a pretty propagandist movie about the first ladies. I say this, because it says things like, and I’m paraphrasing “all of the wives were supportive of their husbands” and then goes on to even mention Bess Truman who I wouldn’t describe as a ‘supportive’ first wife….

Now if you know anything about Bess, you’ll know that she DESPISED Washington and would only deem to be there when her presence was absolutely demanded (essentially abandoning her husband for the majority of his presidency). Her behavior overall made it clear that she was less than thrilled about her husband’s political career in spite of Truman doing everything he could to keep her involved, including nepotism in the form of finding her paying jobs. Once, when asked if she’d like her daughter to one day be President, she said, “most definitely not.” Bess held only ONE press conference over the course of Harry’s two terms in office and only did that once her repeated refusals to do them had become a political issue. While one could give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she feared her father’s suicide would become a public issue (back then the ‘heinous sin’ of a suicide in the family was like a permanent ‘taint’ on the blood of all descendants), or perhaps one could argue that it was a before-her-time feminist stance (if the press asked her what she might be wearing to a public event her “written” responses were usually pretty sarcastic) the overall effect is still of a woman whose behavior could not be described as “supportive of her husband.”

…. hence why I mean it when I say the movie they showed us about the first ladies was pretty “propagandist”; for me, I prefer my history presented unapologetic-ally, with the good, the bad and the ugly intact.

Then we were led into the front room where the docent offered to either let us just wander the exhibits independently, or he could share with us what he knew. I promptly said “share what you know” and he made it clear he knew his first ladies (although he did edit some of the most controversial stuff out), including things like the fact that Jackie-O felt she was cursed. The docent then essentially keeps us in the ‘first ladies room’ for what I’m pretty sure was a set amount of time — it was clear my group was ready to go one well before he allowed us to do it, and then we were told to all go as a group past the hotel (again) to the Ida McKinley’s house where we led around by a different docent.

Over all, I felt the place was underwhelming; the exhibits in the first building were, in my opinion, worth seeing but not quite ‘ready for prime time.’ It was like they knew they HAD to have something, and this was the best they could come up with.  I have not yet seen the Smithsonian’s first ladies exhibit, but I’m guessing it beats the pants off of what I saw here. And then, while the lower floors of Ida’s house impressively attempted to ‘recreate’ the home — based on old family photographs of the rooms, the top floor of Ida’s house then discordantly tried to tie back into the first ladies theme by offering a gallery of portraits of the women. While up there I brought up the topic, “what are you guys going to do if Hillary wins the presidential campaign?” The docent admitted it was an issue they were currently trying to wrap their brains around — even though it was something they should have considered at the outset. Insisting that first ladies need to be recognized is a feminist stance… Yet,  Just looking at the place, in my opinion, how they set the place up is evidence that its founders essentially bought into the belief that presidents are and always will be male. Considering organized the place not 16 years ago, you’d think they’d have prepared, nay… looked forward, to the eventuality of a female president, but it is clear they had not.

Before leaving the site entirely, I struck up a conversation with some retired folks who were in the parking lot. To my great luck, one of them had grown up in Canton and started telling me about just how different the site had been then — reiterating something I had spotted in an image that was in the house.

IMG_8125

Ida’s childhood home had been converted into a business, and the parking lot we were standing in, as well as the home’s garden, had been occupied with other businesses/buildings … all of which have since been torn down (in order to restore the site, something that probably could not have happened but for a downturn in the Canton economy).

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