To explore the home of a president is to step into his life. Surprisingly, you find luxury and penury. Privilege is tempered by misfortune, victory by personal loss.
"So often we learn history though books," says Caroline Keinrath, deputy superintendent of Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, "but when you come to the places themselves, you make a three-dimensional connection"; people are "lifted off the pages of books" and brought to life.
Six of the nation's presidents were New Englanders. Eleven of their homes remain, eight as museums. Each embodies a period of American history, from John Adams's 17th-century birthplace to the 20th-century Kennedy home in Hyannisport. While Grover Cleveland's Tamworth, N.H., summer home is no longer in the family, George H.W. Bush and President Bush still visit their summer place. In varying ways, all these places bear a presidential imprint.
JOHN ADAMS, Quincy. When the White House was completed in 1800, Adams became the first president to live there. Though his Massachusetts address couldn't hold a candle to George Washington's Mount Vernon, it illustrates how well the elite lived after the Revolutionary War. In its day, the Adams mansion, called the "Old House," doubled as a working farm. While Adams steered the nation, his wife, Abigail, refurbished the residence, adding a parlor, study, and hall. After losing the next election to Thomas Jefferson in 1801, Adams settled in Quincy full time. It was a cultured environment, one of books, oil portraits, and handsome furniture. Now part of an 11-structure national park, the estate is a time capsule of Colonial living and the only museum displaying the birthplaces of two presidents.
The second president's birthplace is a weathered 1681 saltbox, while the family's 1870 Stone Library remains an architectural treasure. Among the volumes are 14,000 books, in seven languages, of Adams's son, who would himself become president in 1825.
JOHN QUINCY ADAMS, Quincy. As the sixth president, John Quincy Adams strove to shape the emerging nation that his father helped wrench from British domination. He too was born in a far more modest home than the Old House that father and son would both occupy later in life. His 1716 birthplace, a matter of yards from his father's, is another saltbox, though 35 years newer and a tad less rustic. As his father orchestrated the Revolution from Washington, the younger Adams represented the country abroad, first in the Netherlands, then in Portugal and Prussia. Returning to Quincy, he entered politics. In 1809 he became envoy to Russia, then minister to the Court of St. James. Worldly and multilingual, international relations were his strong point. Today he is considered one of America's greatest foreign diplomats.
JOHN F. KENNEDY, Brookline. Few presidential estates are as mythologized as the beachside Kennedy compound in Hyannisport, viewable by boat. Yet like the Adamses', Kennedy's beginnings were decidedly less affluent. The 35th president was born in a three-story Colonial on a quiet, tree-lined street in residential Brookline, his parents' first home as a married couple. Kennedy's father left his bank presidency six years later for a more lucrative career, moving the family to grander abodes. In 1966, three years after President Kennedy's assassination, Rose Kennedy repurchased this home and restored it from memory to the way it looked in 1917, when her second son was born. She was 80 by the time it was done. The upshot is a nostalgic reconstruction of the years before the family tragedies. "Life," she says in the wistful recording that guides you through the rooms, "was so much simpler then."
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, Kennebunkport, Maine. The 41st president, born in Milton, spends part of his year in a shingle-style mansion on Walker's Point. It might be a summer residence, but it looks like a fortress. Massive and dark, the ocean nearly surrounds it. Guards keep watch at its gated entrance. Such utter isolation from the community inevitably communicates the message "keep out," even as the stars and stripes undulate cheerfully from the grounds. The 11-acre estate, built in 1903 by Bush's maternal grandfather, George H. Walker, was intended for privacy. But there are several spots along Ocean Avenue where travelers can pull off, sit on a park bench, and gawk. And on a warm summer day, they do.
FRANKLIN PIERCE, Hillsborough, N.H. Like many presidents, Pierce was born into privilege. His spacious Federal-style birthplace exemplifies post-Colonial classicism with its stenciling, Empire furniture, and French wallpaper. Pierce's charismatic father, Benjamin, who built it as a tavern, later became a two-term governor. Having served Washington in the Revolutionary War, he prided himself on his military expertise, turning the ballroom into a militia-drilling area. Franklin, the seventh of nine children, inherited his father's charm, looks, and military aptitude. A brilliant trial lawyer, he left Hillsborough to practice in nearby Concord, the capital. In later years, he would look on his youth as the happiest time of his life.
FRANKLIN PIERCE Manse, Concord, N.H. Pierce's misfortunes began after his marriage to the retiring Jane Appleton. As his career soared, his personal life tanked. Having lost their first child in infancy, she implored him to quit politics. For a time, he did, settling into this handsome Greek Revival home, which was two blocks from the statehouse. Soon after, their second son died of typhus. Persuaded to enter the presidential race, Pierce won by a landslide. But less than two months before his 1853 inauguration, the couple's surviving child, Benny, 11, was killed in a train accident. The tragedy cast a pall over his presidency as the issue of slavery nudged the nation closer to war. Grieving, Pierce made political missteps that cost him reelection. He devoted himself full time to Jane, now ill with tuberculosis, burying her in 1863. His best friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, died a year later. Pierce, by now an alcoholic, lived another six years. The Manse's tidy interiors almost radiate despair: the president's cane and top hat, his wife's fainting couch. If anything, it's a portrait of a politician who should have been a White House success story. Instead, he has been branded - some feel unfairly - one of the worst presidents in history.
CALVIN COOLIDGE, Plymouth Notch, Vt. For Coolidge, it took a village. The 30th president is commemorated not by a single house, but an entire settlement. Plymouth Notch is frozen in time, a quintessential New England village preserved as it was circa 1923. The church, barn, general store, cheese factory, and homestead all played a role, however secondary, in making Coolidge who he was: a thrifty, practical man with great integrity. It was here that he learned of his succession. He had come home to help with the haying when news arrived of Warren Harding's heart attack. Coolidge was sworn in by his father, a justice of the peace. He served a second term, too, advocating frugality and small government. Seeing the quilt he stitched and the fields he ploughed, you understand the source of his self-sufficient, common-sense perspective. Asked by reporters how he knew he could administer the presidential oath of office that night in 1923, his father's reply was typically Coolidge: "I didn't know I couldn't."
CHESTER A. ARTHUR, Fairfield, Vt. Like Coolidge, Arthur assumed office after the death of a president. When James Garfield was assassinated in 1881, Arthur, a Vermont-born lawyer, stood in, surprising fellow Republicans with his steely independence. In his three-year term, he fought corruption and backed improvements to the tariff code and civil service. Such policies antagonized his party, which abandoned him in 1884. It was just as well, as Arthur had a kidney ailment that would kill him within a year. The fifth child of a poor Irish preacher, the 21st president was raised in a tiny parsonage, of which this museum is a replica. Inside, pictures recall his life. Despite his hardscrabble beginnings, Arthur moved up to Gilded Age luxury. He hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the White House, hauling out 24 wagonloads of antiques as if determined to flush away the past and enjoy the present fully for as long as he could.
Diane E. Foulds, a writer in Burlington, Vt., can be reached at email@example.com.