Where to start? A Father's Status
“People have tended to think of Grant’s father only as a tanner because his tannery was right across the street,” says Restoration Project Coordinator Chris Buchanan of the Ohio Historical Society.
“But as we learned more about him we realized that Jesse Grant was also an entrepreneur — he was a general contractor, sold insurance, owned a livery stable and represented a local “female school” for young ladies. By the time Grant left to go to West Point, his father was mayor of Georgetown and owned a carriage.”
In his Personal Memoirs, U.S. Grant wrote “My father was, from my earliest recollection, in comfortable circumstances, considering the times, his place of residence and the community in which he lived.”
“Through our research,” Buchanan says,”a new picture of the Grant family has emerged. They appear to have been more solidly middle class than has been generally understood and that information has been used to guide the restoration.”
Before work began, the house as it stood was carefully documented in photographs, measured drawings and a Historic Structure Report that can be used as references by future generations.
Outside, visitors will find that the porch added in 1905 is gone. New brick sidewalks and buried utility lines enhance the Grant Boyhood Home’s early 19th-century appearance. The new sidewalks are graded to provide wheelchair access through the rear wing of the house.
Physical evidence and new research have guided decisions about the interiors, too. No longer as spare, they now reflect the tastes of a rising middle-class family of the 1830s. Buchanan and his colleagues have used a Historic Finish Analysis prepared for the Ohio Historical Society by Welsh Color & Conservation of Bryn Mawr, Pa., to help evaluate physical evidence remaining in the house and to determine what types of interior finishes were likely to have existed when the Grants owned it.
Under Paint, a Surprise
One of the most surprising facts the study uncovered is that, beneath layers of later paint, doors in the house had been grain-painted in two tones to look like mahogany and figured maple, prized woods of the time when the Grants lived there.
“That was one of our first clues to the fact that the Grants were living in a style that was not as modest as we’d thought,” Buchanan says.
“A layer of varnish had protected the grain-painting so well that we were able to carefully remove the later paint and reveal the graining, which we believe was done by an itinerant artisan,” he says.
“Ghosts” Help With Hardware
Fortunately, the artisan who did the graining didn’t remove the hardware (though a later owner did), so when the outer layer of paint was removed, it not only revealed the graining, but the shape of the original hardware, including locations of the screw holes. By examining a house of about the same age in nearby Ripley, Ohio, Buchanan and his colleagues were able to identify hardware thought to be identical, which has served as a model for reproducing the long-gone originals in the Grant home.
“Hardware usually has a life of a couple of generations before it gets replaced either out of necessity or because tastes change,” Buchanan says. “That’s what happened here. It’s rare to find such specific information about what was there, so we were delighted when we uncovered ‘ghosts’ of the original door latches and slide bolts.”
The finish analysis also revealed that there had been a layer of glue on the original plaster, leading Buchanan and his colleagues to the decision that the walls should be papered. No shreds of original paper turned up, so the team has been guided by the study, which, through paint analysis, found that each room had had a different trim color. Based on the 1820s colors, papers of the period reproduced using pre-Civil War techniques were chosen for each room. In choosing them, the team also relied on newspapers of the time and other sources that revealed what was available in the region in the 1820s and 1830s, and what appeared to fit the Grants’ pocketbook.
The furnishings that the Ruthvens collected for the Grant Boyhood Home will be supplemented with period pieces from the Ohio Historical Society’s collections, Buchanan says. “Newer” pieces that reflect fashions of the 1830s will be concentrated in the front rooms where, Buchanan says, the Grants would have sought to make an impression, while “older” pieces — predating the 1830s — will furnish less-formal family areas toward the rear of the house.
Mrs. Trollope Inspires Shades
Window treatments use authentic designs of the time, based on advertising and other sources, such as a complaint by English author Frances Trollope (1779–1863), who described her Cincinnati hotel room in 1828 as “darkened by blinds of paper, such as rooms are hung with, which are required to be rolled up, and fastened with strings awkwardly attached to the window frames. I afterward met with these same uncomfortable blinds in every part of America.” This quotation led Buchanan to the choice of similar roller blinds at the windows of the boys’ rooms at the rear of the house.
A decorative floor cloth — predecessor of linoleum — has been reproduced for the front hall, where it would have been a practical answer to the dirt streets outside. Wall-to-wall ingrain carpet (woven in strips on a Jacquard loom then stitched together) in an authentic pattern and colors of the time has been made for the parlor, again based on physical evidence that wall-to-wall carpet had been there. In choosing the carpet, Buchanan and his team researched period ads and price ranges, and, taking into consideration the family’s means, chose a middle-of-the-road option.
Asked what he’s learned about Grant as a result of the project, Buchanan says he thinks that “some of his audacity came from his dad, who was not a humble tradesman. He was an ambitious entrepreneur who was self-educated, put a high value on education and had the largest collection of books in Georgetown. He was a well-connected local figure with his hand in a lot of pies.”
Of the restored Grant Boyhood Home, Buchanan says “It’s totally different than it was before, based on the evidence we’ve found. Visitors will find an interior that’s much closer to how it would have looked when Grant lived there, with grain-painted doors, papered walls and carpeted floors.”
Made Possible by These Funders
The project has been made possible by funding through State of Ohio capital appropriations; federal grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service; and two grants from the Ohio Historical Decorative Arts Association. The streetscape improvements were funded by the Ohio Department of Transportation.