First Ladies National Historic Site

Location: Canton, Ohio

Webpage: National Park

General Description: This National Historic Site serves two purposes.  The first is to honor all the nation’s First Ladies over the years highlighting their changing roles.  A small museum is located on the first of seven stories in the 1895 City Bank Building.  The upper floors are dedicated to the First Ladies Library, a comprehensive bibliography on American First Ladies.  Envisioned by Mary Regula, wife of Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula, who spoke regularly about the First Ladies and raised funds to assemble the library.  The second purpose of the site is to preserve the home of President William McKinley, which was the childhood home of his wife Ida Saxton McKinley.  This brick Victorian home was built in 1841 and as the Saxton family rose in prominence in Canton, was extensively modified and enlarged in 1865.  This modification included the addition of a third floor ballroom that saw many lavish parties over Ida’s during Ida’s childhood years.  In 1871 she married William McKinley and they moved to a house gifted to them from her father, a wealthy banker, 5 blocks to the north.  The next 6 years would prove to be very difficult with the loss of both of their daughters in infancy, the death of her mother, and serious illness caused by phlebitis and epilepsy.  They sold this house in 1877 when William was elected to the US Congress and they moved into a suite in a Washington D.C. hotel.  After losing his seat in 1890, he was elected for two terms as Ohio Governor so they moved to Columbus.  During the Presidential election in 1896, he conducted nearly daily campaign speeches from the front porch of this house.  Of course, as President they lived in the White House, but after his assassination in 1901, Ida moved back to her home until her death 6 years later.  During their 13 years living in this home they occupied the third floor ballroom which had been modified into living quarters.  Ida’s sister and large family lived in the rest of the house, which was a strong support system for the semi-invalid Ida.  Eventually the home was sold and the bottom floor was modified into street front shops and the upper floors into a boarding house.  In 1998 it became the first location of the First Ladies Library and extensive renovation of the home to its past glory was taken on by Dr. Sheila Fisher who painstakingly researched and located much of the original furnishings supplemented with period pieces according to photographs from the time period.  In 2000 the First Ladies Library was moved to the City Bank Building, a block away, and today visitors can tour the home.

Impressions:

1) Since the First Ladies NHS is actually two separate buildings a block apart, so is the Visitor Center.  Visitors are first directed to the First Ladies Library in the City Bank Building where they can purchase tickets for the tour and explore the exhibits while waiting for the tour.  They have a nice short movie about the changing roles of the First Ladies over the years which reflect the changing roles of women in society.  Approximately 500 artifacts are on display including 150 original dresses and accessories.  So if you are interested in seeing how women fashions have changed over the last 200 years, this is for you.

2) The tour of the Ida Saxton McKinley home begins at the City Bank Building where they walk a block to the home.  The first floor of the home has some strange architecture, partly due to the front part of the house that was added in 1865 and partly due to the elevator they have installed that is of recent origin.  The sitting room in particular is a very odd L-shaped room due to the elevator shaft and the desire to capture as much light as possible.  There are two dining rooms, one being the original for the home and then the addition.

3) The second floor is broken up into a series of bedrooms for the large family of Ida’s sister that actually owned the house.

4) The third floor was originally a large ballroom during Ida’s childhood, but was converted into living space for Ida and William McKinley.  Consequently, the rooms have strange layouts with doors placed above floor level.  Some of these were for storage of the chairs and tables when this was a ballroom and others to provide convective heat from the chimney which was the only source of heat for this floor.  As it was originally a ballroom, there were no fireplaces in the entire floor!!  The “living room” is now a used to display pictures and short biographies of all of the first ladies.

5) Next to the home they have converted some of the space into a nice garden/picnic area that provides a nice, although small, green space in downtown Canton.  Today Market Street is a typical busy downtown street.

Patio