I Do Solemnly Swear – Records Relating to Presidents in the National Register of Historic Places

White House
White House (National Archives Identifier 135802323)

Today’s post is by John LeGloahec, Archivist in the Electronic Records Division at the National Archives in College Park, MD.

During the month of February we celebrate Presidents Day, the holiday set aside to honor the individuals who have held the office of President of the United States.  There are a number of properties in the records of the National Register of Historic Places (National Archives Identifier 20812721) specific to “President,” “Presidents,” and “United States President.” The White House (National Archives Identifier 117691909), of course, “considered to be the most important residence in the United States, the White House has been the home of every president since the administration of John Adams in 1800. The cornerstone of the White House, the first public building to be erected in Washington, D.C., was laid on October 13, 1792. The design of the house is the work of architect James Hoban whose classic design was inspired by the Leinster House in his native city of Dublin. With certain minor changes and additions, the exterior of the house remains basically the same as when it was completed in 1800. The interior, however, has been changed several times throughout the years, the latest occurring in 1949-1952 during the administration of Harry S Truman when a complete renovation took place. Nevertheless, the historic floor plan has always been retained. Constructed from light grey sandstone from Aquia Creek, Virginia, the house was painted white after the structure was burned by the British during the attack on Washington, August 24, 1814. Today, the White House stands as the physical symbol of the honor and dignity that signifies the highest office in the land.”

Gerald Ford and Steven Ford mowing a lawn
Photograph of Representative Gerald R. Ford and Son Steven Cutting the Lawn at their Alexandria, Virginia Home (National Archives Identifier 187003)

In Alexandria, Virginia (National Archives Identifier 41679464), the residence of the one man who, to date is the only individual who has served as president without having been elected to the office, Gerald Ford, sits on the National Register.  “Gerald R. Ford, Jr., and his family lived at 514 Crown View Drive, Alexandria, Virginia, from the time of their house’s construction there until the Fords moved into the White House on August 19, 1974, ten days after Mr. Ford took the oath of office as President of the United States. During this period, Mr. Ford served as Representative of the 5th district of Michigan in the US Congress, as House Minority Leader, and as Vice President of the United States. Though from 1950 to 1979 the Fords owned a house at 1624 Sherman Street in Grand Rapids in order to maintain residence in Mr. Ford’s home district, the Alexandria house became the family’s primary home.

“While living in this house, the future President established himself as a long­standing leader in the Congress, building up the reputation that eventually led to his confirmation as Vice President. The house represents both the economic and social circumstances of the Fords’ life through a nineteen-year period when Ford’s Congressional career and the Ford children were both maturing. Since the Fords had the house built for them, the house also evidences the quality of their domestic life and arrangements in a particularly direct way.

“President Ford’s career in Congress developed while he lived in the Crown View Drive house. He had previously served on the Public Works Committee, and, in 1951, was named to the House Appropriations Committee. In 1963, he was selected as chairman of the House Republican Conference. He was permanent chairman of the Republican National Convention in 1968 and 1972. He became House Minority Leader in 1965, serving in that capacity until he became Vice President in 1973. He was also named to the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of President Kennedy. Mr. Ford was at home on Crown View Drive when President Richard M. Nixon telephoned to tell him formally that he was Nixon’s choice for the Vice Presidency. “When Ford was confirmed as Vice President in December, 1973, his new status brought changes in both his domestic and professional life. He and Mrs. Ford functioned as the Vice Presidential couple from their home on Crown View Drive. Though Congress had authorized use of the Admiral’s Mansion at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D. C., as the official Vice Presidential residence, the Fords’ preparations for moving to the mansion were cut short by President Nixon’s resignation and Mr. Ford’s assumption of the office of the Presidency. In the interim, Mrs. Ford used a corner of the Crown View Drive master bedroom as her social office. In at least one newspaper interview, she expressed a personal preference for remaining in her Alexandria home, rather than moving to the Naval Observatory.”

Warren G. Harding in Alaska
President and Mrs. Harding at Metlakahtla, Alaska, July 8, 1923. (National Archives Identifier 297445)

In Alaska, the Pullman Railcar (National Archives Identifier 75325494) used by President Harding for his Alaska and West Coast trip, before he took ill and passed away, has been returned to Fairbanks and was installed as part of a permanent park.  “Purchased from the Great Northern Railroad in 1923, this Pullman observation-compartment car was brought to Alaska the same year and renamed Denali, the Indian word for the highest mountain in Alaska, Mount McKinley. The car was part of the “Congressional Special” train that July, and used by President Harding and his immediate party when they travelled from Seward to Fairbanks and return. Harding left Washington, D.C. on a transcontinental tour June 20, 1923, in the midst of the impending debacle of his administration. Travelling by train across the northern half of the United States, the party sailed for Alaska on July 6 from Tacoma aboard the transport Henderson. Stops were made at Ketchikan, Wrangell, Juneau, and unexpectedly at Skagway before the transport reached Seward on July 13.

“Outside of Nenana at the Tanana River Bridge, on the hot, sunny Sunday afternoon of July 15, 1923, President Harding drove the golden spike that signified completion of The Alaska Railroad. The golden spike had been purchased by the people of Anchorage as a gift to Colonel Hears, a member of the Alaska Engineering Commission. It was made of 14-carat gold, measured five and a half inches long, weighed fifteen and a half ounces, and was valued at $600. Several men, including Colonel Steese, Chairman of the Alaska Engineering Commission spoke before the President. Harding’s remarks were short and laudatory followed by the golden spike ceremony. Territorial Governor Scott C. Bone carefully inserted the spike in the hole prepared for it and the President tapped it gently. The golden spike was then withdrawn and an iron spike was substituted. The President missed twice and then drove the final spike—The Alaska Railroad was officially complete . . . On the return trip the President was taken ill. First reports said he had an attack of ptomaine poisoning believed caused by a crab dish served for dinner one evening aboard ship. “Heart symptoms” developed, and all speaking engagements were cancelled. On August 2, 1923 the President died in San Francisco—amid conflicting rumors as to the cause and nature of his illness. One story, reported after Harding’s death, connected the itinerary change in Fairbanks with the ensuing events. While here (Alaska) he (Harding) received a long cipher message from Washington, D.C. The contents of the message, never disclosed publicly, seemed to sap his vitality. The Denali, with two other Pullman observation cars, the Seward and the Yukon, all purchased by The Alaska Railroad from other roads in the United States, were actively used in Alaska during the 1920’s and 1930’s when the railroad provided the primary means of transportation in the Territory. In 1945 the Denali was converted to a transport car. Shortly after, it was retired and parked on a siding at Nenana. In 1959 the Pioneers of Alaska, Igloo No. 4 in Fairbanks wrote to the Alaska Engineering Commission asking if they could procure the car, move it to Fairbanks and operate it as a museum. The car was refurbished during 1959 and 1960 by The Alaska Railroad and donated to the City of Fairbanks. In 1965 the car was moved to Fairbanks and in connection with the 1967 Alaska Purchase Centennial Celebration was moved to its present site, at Alaskaland Park where it serves as an information center during the summer months.”

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site, Buffalo, NY
Great Lakes Seaway Trail – Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site (National Archives Identifier 7718809)

In Buffalo, New York, you can visit the home of Ansley Wilcox (National Archives Identifier 75317689), a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt.  On September 14, 1901, “in the library of the Ansley Wilcox home, Theodore Roosevelt became the twenty-sixth President of the United States . . . Theodore Roosevelt was a close friend of Ansley Wilcox, a prominent Buffalo attorney, and would visit him whenever he was in Buffalo. Not long after he was inaugurated as Vice President, in May 1901, Roosevelt officiated at the opening there of the Pan American Exposition. Later that year, on September 6 while visiting the exposition, President McKinley was shot by an assassin. Roosevelt, who was then in Vermont on a speaking trip, rushed by train to Buffalo, where members of the Cabinet had begun to assemble to carry on governmental affairs. After spending a few anxious days at the Wilcox House, with the condition to the President seemingly better after surgery, Roosevelt joined his family for an outing in the Adirondacks. Three days later he learned by messenger that McKinley was close to death. By the time he arrived back in Buffalo the next afternoon, the President had passed away. After paying his respects to Mrs. McKinley, Roosevelt returned to the Wilcox house where all the members of McKinley’s Cabinet except Secretary of State John Hay and Secretary of the Treasury Lyman Gage, who were not in Buffalo, assembled in the library. At 3:15 p.m., standing before Judge John R. Hazel of the U.S. District Court, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as President. The residence is among the few inaugural sites outside of Washington.”

FDR Presidential Yacht, USS Potomac
USS Potomac, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential Yacht, Cape Cod Canal (National Archives Identifier 44171548)

In California, Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidential Yacht, the USS Potomac (National Archives Identifier 123857889), is now a museum that can be toured, “Potomac was laid down and originally launched as the United States Coast Guard ship Electra . . . Electra was removed from service late in 1935. She was remodeled by the United States Navy for use as a presidential yacht and was renamed U.S.S. Potomac (AG-25). The vessel’s armament was removed, and a new, welded steel superstructure housing a central saloon, the presidential stateroom, with a private head complete with bathtub, and two separate galleys, was installed . . . Directly below the new superstructure, the former boiler and mess area was converted into four passenger staterooms, each with two bunks and individual heads . . . During the conversion, the exhaust manifolds were relocated to the forward stack, and the after stack was gutted to house a hand-operated elevator for the President’s use. . . Additional berths were added below decks in the crew areas for the President’s mess stewards, the original Coast Guard radio equipment was replaced with standard Naval equipment with a greater range and more powerful transmission, and additional ballast was added to compensate for the additional weight above decks. During the course of the vessel’s use as the Presidential yacht, additional alterations and additions were made between 1936 and 1945. These included numerous minor modifications to stop vibration noise in the President’s stateroom, the addition of two 50-cal. Luis antiaircraft machine guns (later changed to two 20- mm antiaircraft cannon), and degaussing gear. During WWII the vessel was used primarily as a Naval sonar research vessel. Special transducers and motor generator units for the sonar equipment were installed.”

“Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election to the presidency of the United States on November 8, 1932, brought an avid sailor and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy (1913-1920) into the White House. Franklin Roosevelt’s first presidential yacht was Sequoia which he inherited from Herbert Hoover and used from 1933 to 1935. The small size of Sequoia and the potential fire hazard of her wooden hull compelled the President to find another yacht. The ship selected was Electra. In November 1935, Electra was transferred to the Navy and taken to Norfolk Navy Yard, where alterations to make her suitable for presidential use were commenced. “The Electra has the advantage of being able to carry more passengers and it will be possible for the President to travel in her with his normal quota of Secret Service.” On January 30, 1936, Electra was renamed Potomac, and on March 2, 1936, U.S.S. Potomac AG-25 was commissioned at the Navy Yard at Norfolk, entering into her duties as the new presidential yacht. The President was a frequent visitor; one crewmember recalls that Roosevelt made frequent fishing trips nearly every weekend from May until November. He loved to go down to where the river emptied into Chesapeake Bay and anchor. As soon as the President started fishing the crew did too … at times the President was having no luck but crewmen on the bow were. We would take up anchor and move forward so the President would be in the right place. Potomac was used for longer voyages, the first being a cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the Bahamas between March 23, and April 8, 1936. President Roosevelt is reported to “have felt more at home aboard the Potomac than in the White House, and it was rumored that … he would rather serve his Presidential terms aboard…” The President himself publicly stated I try to get away a couple times a year on these short trips on the salt water. In Washington as you know, the working day of the Presidency in these times averages about 15 hours … but at sea the radio messages and the occasional pouch of mail reduce official work to not more than 2 or 3 hours … Above all there is the opportunity for thinking things through — for differentiating between principles and mere methods, between the really big things of life and those other things of the moment that may seem all important today and yet are forgotten by the world in a month. The New York Times called Potomac the “Sea-Going White House” in 1941, noting the vessel was “President Roosevelt’s chief refuge from the heavy strain of his office …” President Roosevelt also used Potomac for social functions, including state receptions and hosting a variety of guests, including foreign dignitaries and leaders. The most notable guests were the King and Queen of Great Britain, who journeyed down the Potomac to Williamsburg with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt in June 1939.”

Franklin Roosevelt at Mount Vernon
Franklin D. Roosevelt with Admiral William Benson at Mount Vernon (National Archives Identifier 196067266)

Among the National Register records there are records for every American President, from George Washington1,347 (though some apply to George Washington Carver), including Mount Vernon (National Archives Identifier 41679023) through George W. Bush’s, Childhood Home in Midland, Texas (National Archives Identifier 40973043).  As one might expect however, given the popularity of a particular president, there were more than one George Washington, John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or John Kennedy so some of the links for a particular presidential search may include a property for an individual who may have the same name as the individual who sat in the Oval Office.  You may click on the links below to navigate your own presidential Presidents Day National Register Road Trip. Note: former President Donald Trump’s Florida home, Mar-A-Lago, is also listed on the National Register (National Archives Identifier 77841914).

Mount Rushmore
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway – Mount Rushmore National Memorial (National Archives Identifier 7721037)

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring records from the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and National Historic Landmarks Program Records, 2013 – 2017 (National Archives ID 20812721), a series within Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service.

2 thoughts on “I Do Solemnly Swear – Records Relating to Presidents in the National Register of Historic Places

  1. Hi, I am Venkata Panchumarthi. I read this article and it is very informative. I like the way you explained about the topic. Thank you so much for sharing all this wonderful info. It is so appreciated!!!

  2. Excellent and interesting article! There were once hundreds of Pullman Company “palace cars” and sleeping cars operating on U.S. railroads in the pre-Amtrak era, from the late 1860s to about 1968. Pullman cars were more luxurious than standard coaches and required an extra fare. Very few survive today, usually in railroad museums or in private ownership. The most famous car with a presidential connection is the “Ferdinand Magellan,” a specially modified “bulletproof” car used extensively by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. Today this car is part of the Gold Coast Railroad Museum collection in Miami, Florida.

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