INDIANAPOLIS, IN (KTVI) – It’s been said that if you don't stand for something you'll fall for everything. And where Benjamin Harrison stood, he had a pretty good view of downtown Indianapolis.
“There are over 350,000 bricks that make up this house,” said Charles Hyde, President & CEO Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site. “It’s built on a solid limestone foundation. He actually built the house with his first wife, Caroline, in 1874 and they moved into this house in 1875.”
Harrison took a stand on many issues, though at 5’6” he was our second shortest president. But in Indianapolis, Indiana, the state capital, Harrison still casts a long shadow and at his presidential site, it’s his library where you'll find some of the more unusual items that occupied the oval office.
“The longhorn armchair is probably the finest piece of presidential bling that you can find,” Hyde said. “This bookcase here behind me and this was actually payment for a legal debt. He actually won a case for a German cabinet maker an immigration case and this is apparently how German cabinet makers show their gratitude.”
You'll see Harrison’s 19th century sound system, the cane carved to commemorate the first 23 presidents, including the misspelled “James Mardison.” In fact, there are many canes and walking sticks that Harrison carried around as a lawyer, a brigadier general in the American Civil War, and later as president.
“We actually have that original commission that was signed by Abraham Lincoln with his full name, ‘Make Harrison a brigadier general,’” Hyde said.
If that doesn’t make one snap to attention, then keep your eyes open for Harrison’s bible, used during his oath of office, and his handwritten note letting you know where he placed his palm.
When elected, Harrison was the centennial president, celebrating 100 years since George Washington took the very first oath.
“So his great grandfather was Benjamin Harrison, the fifth the governor of Virginia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence,” Hyde said. “His grandfather was William Henry Harrison who was the ninth president of the United States.”
With his grandfather peering over him, the blank president Harrison had to stand on his own two feet and he took a stand for black voters, immigrants, and expanding the U.S. Navy. Harrison was the president with no middle name and the last of the bearded presidents and it’s likely he walked these floors – possibly barefoot – on a 1870s Oriental rug.
“…it’s managed to survive all this time,” Hyde said. “One of the things that make this place so remarkable is that 75 to 80 percent of what you see was actually original to the Harrisons.”
Benjamin had a back to the future moment, succeeding and preceding Grover Cleveland in and out of the Oval Office. Tariffs might've taken their toll on his presidency but the loss of his wife Caroline took the wind out of his sails. Her influence is everywhere, from the pianos she played, to the dinnerware she designed.
“It’s a very well made,” Hyde said. “It’s not ostentatious. It would be a fine example of a house of its time. So it’s about 10,000-square feet in all.”
Before moving into the White House, Harrison delivered his campaign messages from the comfort of his own home. His front porch speeches off Delaware Street attracted 300,000 people.
“This country is the land of opportunity and that Harrison’s story shares many of those lessons,” Hyde said.
In nearby Crown Hill Cemetery, James Whitcomb Riley, the “Hoosier Poet,” rests on the highest point, overlooking the city and 23rd president.
“In Indiana, we take the word ‘Hoosier’ with great pride and there’s other places where ‘Hoosier’ is maybe not the nicest thing to call somebody, but he was a ‘Hoosier’ in the true sense,” Hyde said.
Riley said Harrison was “our neighbor kind and good, our common friend and fellow citizen.”
“To see and breathe and feel and smell or to hear the creaking of the wood beneath your feet and just being in this space is just a really special experience,” Hyde said.