I have lived within fifty miles of Cincinnati my entire life and several years ago, while I was finishing my degree at Miami University, I learned to respect local history. Nothing can put you in the presence of history as fully as being where the history took place. Jill Lepore, Harvard professor and author put it much better than I can, “Studying history is like time travel, that way. It brings you someplace else, some time else. I mostly feel that way—transported—when I’m in the archives, when I open up a box of someone’s papers, pull out a folder, and begin reading something someone wrote, a long time ago, on a piece of paper. I get that feeling in other places, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt closer to the past than when standing at the end of the Long Wharf, in Boston, with my students, looking across the harbor, and across the sea, talking about how many days on board ship it would have taken for a Tory to get home in the last days before the American Revolution began.” (1)
But I have to confess that I haven’t I visited all the local history sites. I can’t say that I don’t know about them, most of them anyway. I have known about the Taft Museum for most of my life but, as much as I enjoy museums of all sorts any reason I might come up with would only be an excuse. My first visit was March 15th of this year and I wish I had not waited so long.
The house, the museum building, was built, as best can be determined, around 1820 by Martin Baum. The next owner was Nicholas Longworth, a man that worked hard to establish a wine industry in the United States. He hired an African-American painter, Robert S. Duncanson, to paint murals in the homes entrance way. This was during the era when Dr. Daniel Drake was working to bring quality medical education to the city and Cincinnati was on the borderlands between slavery and freedom. I am sure Longworth endured criticism for entrusting his home’s appearance to someone not white. Anyone privileged with an invitation into his home would have seen that he made the right choice.
David Sinton was the buildings next owner. His daughter, Anna, married Charles Phelps Taft in 1873 and they lived in her childhood home until their deaths in the 1931 (her) and 1929. (him) They left the house to the city of Cincinnati for use as a museum. It opened a year later in 1932. Today, the museum is rightfully proud of their African American artist in residence program. This has to be in honor of Duncanson whose amazing murals still adorn the entrance way. As it turns out one of the paintings I had been admiring a few weeks earlier in the Smithsonian Museum of American Art was by Duncanson. The Tafts traveled the world as wealthy art collectors during the Gilded Age. They had exquisite taste, by which I mean they loved the same shades of blue as my wife.
In 1908 Charles Taft’s half brother accepted his party’s nomination for president of the United States on the Taft Museum’s front porch. A few blocks away the first presidential nominating convention outside the original colonies was held in Cincinnati at the Smith Nixon Piano Company. I have to assume that their building included a performance hall. The convention was an interesting affair with armed men breaking into the hall at one time and insisting they be seated as delegates from Missouri. The Official Proceedings were published and are available on Google Books. Delegates from California participated for the first time in choosing a presidential candidate. Travel was a little different then, they sailed to Nicaragua, took a railroad across to the Gulf, sailed to New Orleans, then took a steamboat to Cincinnati. When they reached their decision Buchanan was notified at his home in New York by the very latest in communications technology, telegraph.
Rutherford B. Hayes was nominated in 1876 by the Republican Party during a convention held in Cincinnati’s Exposition Hall. I am looking for proof that this was the same hall built on what is now Washington Park for the World Industrial Expositions, early international trade fairs which were popular in that time. Four years later the Democrats nominated Winfield S. Hancock in a convention held at our Music Hall. In 1892 it was the Prohibition Party that used Music Hall to hold its convention. They nominated John Bidwell and he got the most votes any Prohibition Party candidate ever earned, 270, 770. When the Progressive Party nominated John La Follette in their 1924 convention held in Cincinnati I can only guess that they also used Music Hall. I understand that the Republican Party is considering Cincinnati for its next convention. It won’t be in Music Hall but it would bring even more history to the city.