February 17, 2020
Today is Presidents' Day in the USA, a federal holiday to honour the first President of the United States George Washington, and subsequent commanders in chief
Though Washington was born on the 22nd February, 1732, the holiday is celebrated throughout the country on the third Monday of the month, save for a couple of quirky state-level exceptions. To mark the occasion, here’s our pick of the best presidential homes, museums and libraries you can visit in and around Washington DC, as well as in our other destinations across the United States.
Let’s start with the main man himself. The Founding Father was born into a wealthy planter family on his father’s tobacco farm in Westmoreland County, Virginia, about 70 miles south of downtown Washington DC. While the original house was destroyed by fire, the George Washington Birthplace National Monument preserves a reconstructed Memorial House, as well as the Washington family burial ground and a colonial living farm that reflects the environment young George would have experienced.
Most of his childhood, however, was spent at Ferry Farm in nearby Stafford County. It was here that the honest little six-year-old supposedly confessed to damaging his father’s favourite cherry tree with a gifted hatchet, uttering the immortal line “I cannot tell a lie,” which imbued the future president with a deeply moral character in the eyes of generations of Americans. Unfortunately, the story is nothing more than a popular myth invented by a later biographer, but to this day the tradition of baking cherry pies for Presidents’ Day remains. Yum.
Set on the western bank of the Potomac River near Alexandria, Mount Vernon is the best known George Washington landmark. The historic plantation was the first president and his wife Martha Washington’s home until his death in 1799, and the estate encompasses his 21-room Palladian-style mansion and the Washington Library, as well as naturalistic gardens and his beloved Pioneer Farm, both of which were tended by scores of enslaved workers. Learn more about their and Washington’s lives on a guided tour – Mount Vernon is open every day of the year, including Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Unsurprisingly, there’s a packed calendar of events at this time of year, including wreathlaying ceremonies and military demonstrations.
Other Virginian presidential landmarks include the UNESCO-recognised Monticello in Charlottesville – the mountaintop plantation estate of third president and Declaration of Independence-author Thomas Jefferson – and the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in historic Staunton, which houses the 28th president’s birthplace and his restored 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine.
Back in the city of Washington DC are several sites worthy of attention, including President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home, where he lived seasonally during the Civil War, and the Decatur House, which was the first residential building in the White House neighbourhood. It houses the capital’s only preserved urban slave quarters, and also serves as a museum of White House history. Another significant landmark is Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, which comprises both Ford’s Theatre itself, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, and the Petersen House opposite, where he was taken after the shooting and died the following morning.
The state of New York is home to some impressive presidential sites, most of them related to Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. On the north shore of Long Island, Sagamore Hill was the home of 26th president Teddy Roosevelt from 1885 until his death in 1919. The estate became known as the ‘Summer White House’ during his tenure, and is one of dozens of elaborate mansions constructed on the so-called Long Island Gold Coast during the Gilded Age by prominent families like the Vanderbilts, Guggenheims and Astors. Born into a wealthy family himself, Roosevelt’s birthplace is in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, where a brownstone museum at 28 E. 20th Street recreates his boyhood home.
Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was born at the Springwood Estate in Hyde Park, New York, where he also lived throughout his life and was later laid to rest. The estate – which hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during his time in office, as well as UK prime minister Winston Churchill – was left to the American people upon his death, and has since been administered by the National Park Service.
Back in New York City, a domed mausoleum in Upper Manhattan is the final resting place of 18th president Ulysses S. Grant. Commonly known as Grant’s Tomb, the national historic site was notoriously vandalised and graffitied during the 1970s and 80s, until a law was enacted in the mid-1990s to restore it to its original state. Open to the public on Wednesdays–Sundays, the mausoleum is the largest in North America.
Across the Hudson River, the state of New Jersey is home to a house museum dedicated to Grover Cleveland, who – as the 22nd and 24th POTUS – remains the only president in history to serve two non-consecutive terms. The Presbyterian parsonage where he was born is open for tours.
The best known sites in Massachusetts relate to the life and times of the 35th President of the USA, John F. Kennedy, whose birthplace and childhood home now form the John F. Kennedy National Historic Site. In the leafy Greater Boston suburb of Brookline, the elegant clapboard house is closed for renovations until spring 2021, but the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum on Boston‘s waterfront provides Kennedy fans with extensive access to his legacy, as well as a chance to admire the dazzling architecture of the I.M Pei-designed structure that houses it all.
Further south in the city of Quincy, Adams National Historical Park provides seasonal guided tours of three presidential homes including the birthplaces of second president John Adams, and his eldest son, sixth president John Quincy Adams. Tours for 2020 resume on Friday 1st May. On a much smaller scale, the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Musuem lies within Forbes Library, one hundred miles west in the arty city of Northampton.
The state of Georgia is associated with three American presidents, but it’s the 39th POTUS, Jimmy Carter, with whom it’s most inextricably linked. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, former peanut farmer and Navy officer James Earl Carter was born and raised in the sleepy, rural outpost of Plains, around 150 miles south of Atlanta. The Jimmy Carter National Historic Site provides access to his boyhood farm and the former Plains Train Depot which served as his campaign headquarters, as well as to a visitor centre and museum located in the former Plains High School. You can even stay overnight in one of seven themed bedrooms at the Plains Historic Inn on Main Street, developed by Jimmy and his wife Rosalynn Carter. And though he’s currently recovering from a bout of ill health, the former president still teaches Sunday School at Marantha Baptist Church, offering you a chance to meet the great man in person.
Back in the state capital Atlanta, the striking, circular Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum lies in landscaped parkland in the Poncey-Highland neighbourhood, and houses a full-sized replica of the Oval Office as it was during his tenure, as well as his Nobel Peace Prize.
Georgia’s other presidential legacies include Franklin Roosevelt’s Colonial Revival retreat, the Little White House, which he built while he was still Governor of New York and escaped to frequently. Roosevelt had been diagnosed with polio in 1921, and the town’s natural springs helped to ease his pain. He continued to visit the six-room house throughout his presidency, and famously passed away there while sitting for a portrait in 1945. Visitors can view the ‘Unfinished Portrait’ at the historic site, which has been maintained almost as he left it.
In Augusta, Georgia, ‘Tommy’ Woodrow Wilson spent his formative years in a clergy house that’s now a museum known as the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home. The young future president spent 13 years here, living through the American Civil War and the Reconstruction era that followed, both of which had a profound impact on his attitudes to conflict.
Save for a couple of JFK monuments, Florida is home to just one presidential landmark – the Harry S Truman Little White House Museum, which became known as the Winter White House during his almost eight-year presidency. Located in Key West, the house was home to President Truman for 175 days in total, spread over 11 visits, though it’s also hosted five other presidents over the years, including Eisenhower, Kennedy and Clinton. Visit the public rooms on a guided tour and see where they all lived and worked.
California’s presidential attractions are dedicated to two twentieth century presidents, both of whom became associated with controversies of varying magnitudes. In the Orange County city of Yorba Linda, the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace is home to all of Nixon’s presidential papers, as well as a 2011-opened gallery devoted to the Watergate scandal, which replaced a previous exhibit that was criticised for ‘watering down’ the narrative around his 1974 resignation. Nixon’s 1912-built childhood home sits just behind the museum, while the most popular exhibit, the presidential helicopter Army One, is also on permanent display and open to visitors.
On a hilltop in Simi Valley, the vast Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is dedicated to the life of the former Hollywood Democrat movie star and Republican 40th President. Famous exhibits include a state of the art Ronald Reagan hologram, plus a section of the Berlin Wall and a replica of the Oval Office decorated as it was when Reagan was in power, complete with a jar of his favourite Jelly Belly sweets. The Boeing 707 used as Air Force One is also on display. In a painstaking operation, the plane was dismantled into parts and transported by Boeing, then reassembled and restored to museum quality on site. Known as the Flying White House, it served seven US presidents between 1973 and 2001.