For Devotees of the Eastlake Movement, James Garfield’s Lawnfield “Is the Dearest Place in the World”

When we visited the Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, New York in July, we brought home one valuable souvenir — a lifetime National Parks pass that covers entrance fees to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. So, last Sunday, we took it to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. 

We had visited the home of the 20th president of the United States long ago, but not since its $12 million restoration in the 1990s. It was something to see. 

Our visit began in the estate’s former carriage house, where we looked at exhibits and watched a film that provided interesting insights into Garfield’s life. We learned that Garfield’s father died when he was two years old, and that he worked as a canal boat tow boy as a teenager. To encourage her youngest child’s interest in education, Garfield’s mother took her entire savings and enrolled him in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, Ohio (now Hiram College), where he studied from 1852 to 1854. 

During his studies at the Institute, Garfield also became interested in phrenology, attending lectures on the practice and debating that it was a science. In 1854, he traveled to New York City to have his head examined by Lorenzo Fowler. Garfield’s phrenology book and chart is on exhibit in the visitor’s center. To read more about the results of Garfield’s examination, see this post from The Garfield Observer, the James A. Garfield National Historic Site’s blog.

Although Fowler’s examination found Garfield to be “mentally lazy,” Garfield set an impressive personal goal of learning 12 new vocabulary words.  Later in life, he read one book a day. 

After completing his education at Williams College in Massachusetts, Garfield returned to the Institute to teach Greek and Latin, among other subjects. Eventually he became a principal and trustee of the school. 

While at the Institute, Garfield taught Greek to Lucretia (“Crete”) Rudolph. They married in 1858 and had five sons and two daughters. Their first child, Eliza Arabella (“Trott”) died of diphtheria when she was three years old. Her sterling silver coffin plate is on display. 

Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859, became lieutenant colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, began his 17-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1863. In 1876, Garfield purchased a home in Mentor, not only to provide a peaceful respite for his family during House recesses, but also for his sons to learn about farming. He renovated it in 1880, adding 11 more rooms to the nine-room farmhouse that was built in 1832. 

After being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1880, Garfield suddenly became the Republican nominee for president that same year. He conducted his presidential campaign not only from his front porch, but also from a small building behind the house that he converted from his library to his campaign office, which even had telegraph service. Reporters started calling the home “Lawnfield” during the campaign. 

Walking the same path taken by the thousands of people who visited Lawnfield during Garfield’s presidential campaign, our guide, George, told us that the front portion of the home has been returned to its 1880 appearance, while the rear of the home resembles what it would have looked liked between 1885 and 1904. 

Inside, George said that the home includes over 80 percent of the Garfields’ original furnishings and memorabilia. Ten wallpapers were reproduced from photographs or samples found under other wallpaper layers during restoration. Restoration efforts were also guided by the discovery of a roll of original wallpaper border in the basement of the home, along with the receipt for its purchase. 

If you’re a devotee of the Eastlake Movement like me, you will delight in what you see at Lawnfield. In Garfield’s mother’s bedroom, you can see a decorative firescreen with Garfield’s portrait executed in stained glass.

In the dining room, there’s an inviting window seat, as well as art glass in the windows and the side door…

…while hand-painted tiles surrounding the fireplace are thought to have been decorated by Lucretia and the Garfield children.

Upstairs, look carefully and you’ll spot spider webs on the wallpaper and on a side table in the library. House spiders brought good luck and good fortune to Victorians.  Daughter Mollie Garfield’s bedroom includes a set of ebonized Eastlake furniture and a Turkish/Moorish corner that was popular during the period.

In Garfield’s office, which Lucretia called his “snuggery,” there’s a distinctive chair in which he sat sideways.

A portrait of Garfield in his Civil War uniform still hangs in its original location, on the landing to the second floor. Garfield commissioned this portrait from Caroline Ormes Ransom, a Garfield family friend who was one of the first successful American female portrait artists, George told us. Born in Newark, Ohio in 1826, Ransom studied art with noted landscape artist Asher B. Durand in New York, and continued her training by traveling to Paris, Rome and Dresden, where she copied works of the Old Masters. She returned to Cleveland in 1860, but later moved to Washington, D.C., where she died in 1910. One of the founders of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Ransom is buried in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery. Six other original Ransom paintings are on display at Lawnfield. 

After her husband was assassinated in 1881, Lucretia returned to Lawnfield. During additional renovations there in 1885-1886, she built a windmill that not only pumped and stored water for the property, but also served as a conversational “feature” typical of many Cleveland estates of the period. She also added a wing to the home that included a presidential library, a research room and a fireproof vault that protected her husband’s papers until they were transferred to the Library of Congress decades later.

Garfield kept everything, arranging his future wife’s letters in chronological order, recording his thoughts in a personal diary that he kept from the age of 17 until his death, and amassing a significant collection of books during his career. 

The Garfields were avid letter-writers. In Lawnfield’s Memorial Library, with its quarter-cut white oak ceiling and intricate machine-carved woodwork, you can see Garfield’s Queen Anne Wooten patent desk with its personalized writing board, inlaid “JAG” initials on the front, and abundance of pigeonholes and compartments. Lucretia’s writing desk sits in front of it. 

Upon Garfield’s death, Queen Victoria sent a condolence letter and a floral wreath to Lucretia Garfield that was placed on the casket during the lying in state and funeral. You can read the letter in the visitor’s center and see the wreath in the Memorial Library vault.

Our tour ended in Lawnfield’s former kitchen, which has been transformed into another exhibition area where more Garfield artifacts and photographs provide additional insight into the family. According to one of the displays, Lucretia is quoted as writing in a January 16, 1887 letter that she had one hobby – “to make home the dearest place in the world.” I think she succeeded. 

My visit to Lawnfield has prompted me to add three books to my reading list: Crete and James: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield, edited by John Shaw; Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard, who gave a presentation about her book at Lawnfield in August; and Giant in the Shadows: The Life of Robert T. Lincoln, by Jason Emerson, who spoke at Lawnfield the day before my visit. During his presentation, Emerson talked about the friendship between Garfield and Robert Lincoln, who was Garfield’s Secretary of War and was present when Garfield was shot. 

After touring Lawnfield, we stopped for a “Chagrin Broil” at the Mentor location of Yours Truly, a local, family-owned restaurant chain that’s known for its hamburgers, all-day breakfast and chicken broils. President George W. Bush visited there in April 2006. Red Velvet cupcakes from the MCL Cafeteria and a pink iPad Smart Case from Nails completed this eve of Birthday #43.

 

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