I would never have guessed anything spectacular happened in the yellow brick house on a hill above downtown Cincinnati. But the unremarkable house played a remarkable role in history as William Howard Taft’s birthplace. Now operated by the National Park Service, the preserved house interprets the history of the 27th President of the United States.
I was eager to visit the national historic site. I took Sycamore Street out of downtown and surprisingly started climbing a hill. This was the first hill I’d encountered after spending a week road tripping from Toledo. I passed a beautiful mural announcing, “Historic Mt. Auburn.” Finally, at the pinnacle of the hill, I spotted the yellow brick house.
I pulled out my Passport to the National Parks Explorer Edition binder. It was time to collect another cancellation stamp. But first, I needed to explore the William Howard Taft National Historic Site in Cincinnati, Ohio.
William Howard Taft National Historic Site
In 1851, Alphonso Taft purchased a house on Mount Auburn. The neighborhood – upwind and high above downtown Cincinnati – was where upper-class residents lived. Six years later, William Howard Taft was born in the house – Alphonso and Louise Taft’s second child.
William lived in the house until he went to Yale in 1874 – it would be the last time he ever lived in the yellow brick house. In 1889, Alphonso and Louise Taft moved to California and began leasing the house, but in 1899 decided to sell it outright. The house began a long history of renovation and alteration, even serving as an apartment building for a short time.
In 1937, the William Howard Taft Memorial Association was formed. Initially, the non-profit organization had little success in purchasing Taft’s birthplace – even Robert Taft didn’t want the house to become a memorial. In 1968, the association was finally able to buy the house for $35,000, and they gifted it to the National Park Service.
In 1969, the William Howard Taft National Historic Site was opened to the public.
Guided Tour of the Taft House
“Would you like a guided tour of the house?” I had only just opened the door to the small visitor center when the park ranger asked the question. Guided tours are always the best way to learn about a place, so I had already decided to do one – especially since it was the only activity to enjoy at the national historic site.
I was the only visitor on the tour, even though it was a Saturday afternoon. That was fine with me – it meant I could ask more questions and spend more time capturing photos. The tour began at the home’s front entrance and quickly moved inside.
The ranger began with the house’s history, explaining that after the Tafts sold the property, it was drastically altered and even served as an apartment building for a short time. When the NPS took possession, the house was restored to its 1860s appearance, including the funky retro floor pattern, wallpaper, and carpeting on the first floor.
The tour continued through a long parlor adorned with original portraits of Alphonso and Louis Taft. A nursery in one of the back rooms was where William Howard Taft was born in 1857. The tour moved upstairs through a few more rooms, then down two flights of stairs into the basement.
The ranger explained that a typical tour would last about thirty minutes. I had taken thirty-five. And I had learned a lot about the 27th President and 10th Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – the only person to hold both offices.
Taft Education Center
I was surprised to learn the Taft Education Center was not original to the property. What made this revelation so shocking was the almost perfectly matched yellow brick construction. The attention to architectural detail was a nice touch to blend the additional building into the original property.
Inside the glass lobby, the visitor center was merely a standing desk for a park ranger and a tiny gift shop. The gift shop had the usual items – a copy of the US Constitution, pens and notepads, and the Passport cancellation stamps. I finally stamped my book and then bought a copy of Homes of the First Ladies by William Clotworthy. The book would come in handy when I visited the First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton.
The back of the education center was a small museum space with exhibits on Taft’s political career. Standing tall among the interpretive panels was a life-size animatronic version of Charles Taft II, William Howard Taft’s son, talking about family life. Interesting!
Taft Museum of Art
In 1869, David Sinton bought a large house at the edge of downtown Cincinnati. A few years later, his daughter, Anna, married Charles Phelps Taft in the house’s Music Room. In 1908, Charles’ half-brother William Howard Taft won the Republican nomination for president and gave his acceptance speech from the home’s front porch overlooking Lytle Park.
After the death of Charles Phelps Taft in 1929 and Anna in 1931, the house was left to the newly created Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts. Extensive renovations of the house restored the Duncanson Murals – a series of murals painted by African American muralist Robert S. Duncanson in the early 1850s.
Today, the Taft Museum of Art is spread throughout the historic house. The Duncanson Murals are on full display for visitors to admire, along with hundreds of other pieces of artwork, from dinnerware to giant portraits. Visitors can take a self-guided stroll through the opulent rooms and even get something to eat at the tea garden in the courtyard.
Taft’s Ale House
Taft’s Ale House has nothing to do with William Howard Taft – or any Taft – but it was an amazing place to visit. I discovered the local brewery and restaurant while using my favorite road tripping planning tool – Google Maps.
I followed the turn-by-turn directions and snagged the only parallel parking space on Reece Street. Stepping out of the car, I craned my head upward at the bell tower of a church. Was I in the correct place?
On the sidewalk, a sandwich board sign beckoned visitors to come inside Taft’s Ale House. Intrigued, I walked up the short set of stairs through the entrance and came to a stop. A cathedral ceiling stood high above the cavernous space. A second-floor balcony wrapped around the perimeter of the building. The pulpit had been replaced with a bar. The organ pipes had been replaced with stainless steel fermenters.
What kind of place was this?
The hostess sat me at one of the picnic tables on the first floor. My head was still craned upward, looking at the mason jar lights hanging from black metal chandeliers. The rustic wooden floor looked original, or at least very well-trodden.
When the waitress came for my order, I first had to ask about the church. “It was built in the 1850s and then renovated for the Ale House in 2015,” she automatically explained. I don’t think it was the first time she’d been asked that question.
Pushing the architecture and history from my mind, I turned to enjoy the food. The cheeseburger served on a brioche bun was cooked to perfection. The tater tots were wonderfully salty and paired nicely with the homemade beer cheese sauce. The cold craft beer was just a tad short of perfection.
I really miss that beer cheese sauce.
Where to Stay in Cincinnati
There are some fantastic luxury hotels in downtown Cincinnati. But unless you’re going to a Reds baseball game, you will likely need to drive to everything else in the city, like the William Howard Taft National Historical Park. The best places to stay are the moderately priced hotels a few minutes north of downtown.
If you want budget hotels that are a decent place to stay, you’ll have to drive about 20-30 minutes along I-71 northeast of downtown. Avoid this interstate highway during rush hour, but the drive is quick and easy at other times of the day.
Here are some hotels I would recommend when visiting Cincinnati, Ohio.
La Quinta is a growing brand for offering comfortable budget hotel rooms recently renovated. Take a dip in the gorgeous indoor swimming pool and take advantage of the free on-site parking. Choose from rooms with one king bed, two double beds, or the Executive Suite with one king bed and a sleeper sofa.
The Red Roof Inn & Suites is a hotel with secure indoor access to guest rooms. The outdoor swimming pool is clean and well maintained. Choose from rooms with one king bed or two queen beds, all featuring renovated hardwood floors and new furnishings.
The Best Western is a comfortable hotel with many amenities if you plan to spend more than a night or two. The indoor swimming pool is small, but sliding glass doors lead directly to an outdoor patio. Choose from rooms with one queen bed, one king bed, or two queen beds.
The Holiday Inn Express & Suites is across the Ohio River in Covington, but it’s an easy five-minute drive into downtown Cincinnati. The hotel features a nice indoor swimming pool, free on-site parking, and a complimentary hot breakfast. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or one king bed.
The Graduate Cincinnati features an eye-popping colorful design and comfortable furnishings in a modern hotel space. The hotel features an on-site restaurant and bar. You’ll need to pay an additional $10 per day for parking. Choose from rooms with two queen beds or one king bed.
Located about ten minutes from downtown Cincinnati, the Hampton Inn is the top recommended place to stay in the city. The hotel features a windowless indoor swimming pool, and parking is an additional $9 per day. But the hotel includes the best complimentary hot breakfast of any hotel chain. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or a studio with a king bed and a sleeper sofa.
The Hyatt Regency is an excellent downtown hotel with a gorgeous indoor swimming pool and on-site restaurant and bar. Step outside onto the sun terrace to enjoy views of the cityscape. On-site parking is an additional $35 per day, so you may want to consider using a nearby public parking garage. Choose from rooms with two full beds, two queen beds, or one king bed.
The Hampton Inn and Suites is a good place to stay in the heart of downtown Cincinnati. The hotel features an on-site bar and the best complimentary hot breakfast. Parking is an additional $42 per day, so you may want to consider using a nearby public parking garage. Choose from rooms with two queen beds, one king bed, or a studio suite with a king bed and a sleeper sofa.
Located at the edge of downtown near the Taft Museum of Art, The Lytle Park Hotel is the best place to stay downtown. The hotel features stunning architecture and décor with comfortable furnishings inside and out. Spend an evening on the rooftop terrace with views of the Ohio River and nearby stadiums. Choose from rooms with one queen bed or one king bed, some with a view of Lytle Park.