Marking Indy’s Monuments and Museums: President Benjamin Harrison Home

Since the Indianapolis Colts season ended this past weekend, I find myself with way too much free time. In thinking about how I can be a productive member of society, while still forcing my opinions on all you lovely readers, I feel I have come up with a solution we can both benefit from.

The city of Indianapolis is steeped in a rich history of movers and shakers, museums filled with masterpieces and monuments dedicated to those who came before us. What better way to get to know the Circle City than to visit one of Indy‘s many monuments and museums each week and report back to you, my fellow Hoosiers.

Since this is the inaugural edition of Marking Indy’s Monuments and Museums–did I mention I have a strong affinity for puns–I figure there is no way to better kick things off with than a two-for-one special. Today I will highlight the President Benjamin Harrison Home, and I’ll come back strong tomorrow with my thoughts on the Morris-Butler House as well.

*A quick caution before we proceed, I tend to view things in a different light than most so be prepared for what follows*

PresidentBenjamin Harrison Home

When you arrive at the home of our country’s 23rd President, timing truly is everything. Daily tours are given on the hour and half-hour, but there is no comfortable waiting area to kill time before your glimpse back in time commences. Due to the lack of room inside, every tour starts at the front door with you on the outside waiting to get in.

While this allows tour takers to walk the grounds and take in the impressive exterior of the house, during the winter months it also allows tour takers to experience hypothermia first hand if they do not plan accordingly.

I did not plan accordingly and ended up losing a few digits in the pursuit of knowledge. On the plus side, I’ve become quite proficient in typing with my nubs.

Although I would like nothing better than to describe in full detail all the wonderful parts and treasures housed in the former president’s home, I don’t have the time and I doubt you’d have the patience. So, I will just give you some of my highlights from today’s look into Indianapolis’ history. Besides, why buy the cow if I were to give you all the milk for free…hypothetically speaking. This is just a warm up to all the wonderful things that await your future visit.

The clock struck 10:30 a.m. and the beautifully restored front doors were opened by my friendly and knowledgeable tour guide Joan (note to Joan’s boss, whatever you are paying her it is not enough). One of the greatest aspects of the Harrison Home is that almost everything within is original. From the breathtaking hand-carved wood inlaid floors that run throughout, to the wildly ornate fireplaces that kept the one-time first family warm during days such as these.

The Harrison Home is the best house museum of a famous somebody I have ever toured. Too often such museums rely on the name associated with it alone to sell tickets and keep up interest. Not the crew in charge of preserving and promoting Indiana‘s only presidential dwelling. As soon as the door closes behind you, you expect the Harrisons to step out of the parlor and greet you themselves.

Downstair’s Highlights…

Besides the fact that you can walk through almost every room of the house where American history was literally made, your eyes jump from one artifact to another, each more impressive than the last. There are the black chestnut fireplaces that seemed to have been the life’s work of overly skilled craftsmen, as well as the china the Harrisons used while in the White House.

Many of the paintings throughout the house were created by Benjamin’s first wife Caroline, who died while Benny was occupying the oval office in Washington DC. After just a few moments in front of these works, visitors will realize that she was an accomplished artist, not just someone whose work is known because of who she married.

In my opinion, the real star of the show on the bottom floor  resides in Benjamin’s study near the back of the house. While there is a document on display signed by the great emancipator Abraham Lincoln–Harrison and Abe were both lawyers and good friends–it is the massive book cabinet that occupies nearly an entire wall that left me picking my jaw off the original carpets.

The cabinet was a gift from a former German client of Harrisons who avoided deportation thanks to the downtown Indianapolis litigator. Benjamin must have been one hell of a lawyer because the beautiful behemoth was an extra gift on top of the bill. There is a bald eagle carved on the apex of the book cabinet that is so real it seems as if it’s ready to take flight at any moment.

One final note about the ground floor. Also in Harrison’s study is a picture of the president’s mother. Saying pictures are worth a thousand words does not do this justice. The poor woman could not look more miserable if she tried, it is almost comical. If and when you do decide to visit the Harrison home, remember this picture, seek it out and try not to feel bad while smiling in the face of this woman’s hardship.

Upstairs Highlights…

In my opinion, which is really all that counts right now, the upstairs’ show-stoppers are the beds. While affordable and inventive, IKEA ain’t got nothin on these works of art. As tour guide Joan and I went from bedroom to bedroom, I could not help but be struck by the notion that over a century ago, some  wood artisan spent months–maybe years–crafting just one of these pieces. Spend a minute or two really looking into the detail work on these beds and you quickly realize that it was worth it.

To shed a slightly morbid light on all of this, the bed that our 23rd president passed away in is on display at the Benjamin Harrison Home. So if that is your cup of tea, I would bet you’d like this part of the tour.

Again, everything upstairs is authentic and previously owned by the Harrisons. There is the crib that not only Benjamin was reared in, but also the cradle in which his grandfather William Henry Harrison first viewed the world from. If the name sounds familiar pat yourself on the back, he too was commander-in-chief for a while.

There is more of Caroline’s art work adorning the walls upstairs, as well as a gorgeous wooden desk in the informal parlor. Another can’t be missed item on display in the master bedroom is a prehistoric home gym. I kid you not. There is an archaic fitness machine that the one time president used in the White House. I know this because the plaque affixed to it said so. I guess pumping iron was a political mainstay well before California’s Gov. Terminator took to office.

There is a third floor that was originally used to throw parties in, but has since been converted into exhibit and office space. Your final stop inside the President Benjamin Harrison Home is the Victorian-style kitchen complete with Hoosier Cabinet. If you’ve never seen one I can’t describe it, you just have to come check it out yourself.

From there you are lead to the only unoriginal piece of the Harrison estate. The carriage house out back was demolished decades ago and a perfect replica was built in its stead. I must admit that this was the only part of the tour I could live without. On a positive note, inside said carriage house are two original vehicles from the Harrisons fleet. An actual one horse open sleigh–I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these before–and Mrs. Harrison’s personal SUV. This thing is no joke, even though it does not have an engine, it is still bad ass.

Things I didn’t know before my visit…

  • Benjamin Harrison was only 5-foot-6. I don’t know how well I’d do taking orders from such a man.
  • Benjamin Harrison was the last president to sport chin whiskers. For over a century now, no president felt himself man enough to sport even a stashe.
  • Talk about an inferiority complex: Benjamin Harrison’s father John Scott Harrison is the only American in history able to say that he had both a father and son to hold the office of President of the United States of America. His father William Henry Harrison was the 9th President, and his son was the 23rd man to hold the same title. John Scott did try his hand at government when he served one term as a congressmen from Ohio. Realizing it was not his bag, John Scott lived out his days on the family land on the Ohio River as a content farmer. I wonder what the world would be like if a certain recent President’s son realized he was not cut out for political office and stayed home as a rancher?
  • Let there be light. Benjamin Harrison was the man at the helm when the White House was first outfitted with electricity. The president was so cautious around current that he actually had a full time butler who would go around turning on and off the lights for the first family. This was to guard against electrocution. He must have liked it though, for as soon as he returned to Indianapolis he had electricity installed in the home on Delaware Street.
  • It’s a jungle out there. When the house was first built, it was the edge of town. Grab a gun, walk out the front door and head east or north and within 50 paces you could shoot dinner is the surrounding forest.
  • The man knew a good thing when he found it. When it came time to move in to, or rather take over the White House in 1889, chances are if you knew Benjamin Harrison you could live at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Not really, but the man brought his own family, his son’s family, his daughter’s family and his father-in-law. He even brought a goat from Indiana named Old Whiskers. No really, the man who was the 23rd President of the United States brought a goat named Old Whiskers to live at the White House. That is phenomenal.

    Tour Guide Joan’s Favorite Part of the House…

    In an unrehearsed heart felt response Joan looked over my shoulder towards the heart of the home and with a shy smile on her face said, “The ambiance that radiates in each room has the ability to bring you back in time. There is nothing modern in here, that’s my favorite part.”

    Lasting Impression…

    I wonder how pissed the former president would be to see a highway on-ramp hugging his property line to the South. Of course that might easliy be outweighed by his delight in the fact that he was now once again amongst the living, 109 years after his death. This was a great way to start this little monuments and museums experiment. The President Benjamin Harrison Home set the bar quite high in which future destinations will be compared to. It was monetarily cheap to enter, yet historically rich in content. Add this to your list of things to do in Indianapolis because this is a definite do again sometime in the near future.

    Check out part 2 of our inaugural Marking Indy’s Monuments and Museums Morris-Butler House here.

Benjamin Harrison Presidential Home
230 North Delaware Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202

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