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SUSAN WILLIAMS Commentary: Don't overlook Benjamin Harrison Home

February 7, 2005

SUSAN WILLIAMS

Commentary Don't overlook Benjamin Harrison Home

Here's a thought: Celebrate President's Day (Feb. 21) at the President Benjamin Harrison Home. Let re-enactors take you back to the era of the only president elected from Indiana. Benjamin Harrison built his three-story Italianate Victorian home at 1230 N. Delaware St. in 1875 and lived there until his death in 1901, with a four-year interruption when he moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as the 23rd president of the United States.

The home has had two owners in its 130 years. The Harrison family sold the house in 1937 to the Jordan Foundation, with the understanding that, when it was no longer used for the school of music (the school moved to Butler University in the 1950s), it would become a memorial to Benjamin Harrison. The Jordan Foundation continues to be a conscientious steward of the house. The Benjamin Harrison Foundation, with the help of 60 dedicated volunteers, has responsibility for maintaining the contents, collection, grounds and outbuildings, in addition to conducting all the public programming.

The Harrison home is one of the few presidential homes/museums not funded by the National Park Service. While presidential homes generally receive both state and federal funding, the Harrison home relies on visitor fees, philanthropy and grant awards. Nonetheless, the educational programs are second only to Mount Vernon in terms of number of participants. In 2004, nearly 18,000 schoolchildren visited the Harrison home.

In addition to an informative tour of the home, a visitor can enjoy a special exhibit on women's suffrage and the role early first ladies played in the women's movement. How appropriate, as our community celebrates the year of the women in sports and arts throughout 2005.

Summer at the Harrison home offers two long-standing signature events. A 10-year-old tradition, more than 100 men and women dressed in summer whites square off for a proper and very competitive croquet tournament. For more than 30 years, the Harrison home has been the site of a Fourth of July ice cream social. A recent meaningful enrichment to that day's tradition is an annual naturalization ceremony with Judge Sarah Evans Barker officiating.

Sometimes it is the seemingly little things in life that can frustrate efforts to succeed. In the case of the Harrison home, it was rest rooms. Taking the visitor back to the Victorian era is rich and charming, but two backyard portable toilets are a bit too authentic for busloads of schoolkids or scores of croquet players. Many prospective visitors plan their trips elsewhere rather then confront modern-day outhouses.

Obvious as the need is, it was a multiyear tough sell. Fund-raising campaigns are exceedingly challenging, even for the glitziest of causes. With all the upscale cultural capital-campaign naming opportunities of late, the Harrison home loo didn't stand a chance. But hope springs eternal, thanks to the generosity of Lilly Endowment Inc., the Indianapolis Foundation and Delta Faucet.

Now that planning for new rest rooms is under way, the Harrison Foundation's next focus is to construct a visitor's center. Stay tuned.

As our city grows cultural tourism and contemplates what brings visitors to our city, consider those aficionados of presidential homes, museums and libraries. History buffs from all over the country are attracted to Indianapolis to visit this one-of-a kind cultural treasure in the heart of our city.

If not on President's Day, then someday soon, put the President Benjamin Harrison Home on your "to do" list. This architectural landmark is a time capsule that has preserved the mark left on our city's landscape by a local lawyer who achieved greatness.

This historic gem is a must-see and, without question, worthy of community support.



Williams is the former executive director of the State Office Building Commission and a former longtime member of the City-County Council. Her column appears monthly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to swilliams@ibj.com.
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