Taft Museum Celebrates 200 Years of its Historic House with a Renovation

February 27th, 2022  |  Published in February 2022

Two hundred years have passed, and the historic house at the Taft Museum of Art still stands.

In 1932 the Taft Museum of Art opened with the personal art collection of Anna Sinton Taft and Charles Phelps Taft. Now, the museum, located in this historic house is undergoing an extensive preservation project. The house was listed as a National Historic Landmark on January 7, 1976.

Taft Museum exterior by Kevin White.

The Taft’s Board of Directors commissioned an extensive review of the museum’s operational and infrastructural needs in late 2015. It took three years to create a master plan to identify and develop solutions for complex problems within a 200-year-old home. The plan prepared a thorough analysis of the scope of capital projects for the house. For only the second time since the museum’s creation 90 years ago, Taft temporarily removed prized artworks from the 1820 landmark to prepare for the Bicentennial Infrastructure Project, announced in October 2020. Supported by Love This House capital campaign, the project will ensure future stability of the historic house. GBBN is the architect, and HGC Construction is the contractor, among other partners.

Former executive director and board member Phillip Long said,The current renovation completes the transformation of the oldest important residence in Cincinnati. It incorporates modern technology and current museum standards while celebrating and preserving the best qualities of the historically significant gift of the Taft family and their collections to the Cincinnati community.”

The Love This House campaign began with a goal of $10.7 million. It included an estimated $550,000 to enhance the visitor experience. The Dater Education Space on the lower level of the historic house required enhancements, including more flexible furniture, better electrical infrastructure and proper storage facilities. The solution was to complete a reinterpretation of the permanent collection and historic house encompassing the latest scholarship and dynamic experience. Other additions are new texts, brochures and materials for families and an interactive digital component that integrates low-touch technology.

Board member and treasurer David Hausrath said, “As you might imagine, exhibiting an important and valuable art collection in a 200-year-old house presents many challenges. The board leadership at the Taft Museum of Art basically had two choices: Make small fixes that temporarily solved each problem, but not in an economic, efficient or satisfactory manner. Or undertake a full preservation of the historic house and address the issues in a comprehensive and long-lasting manner. They chose the latter at a cost of $12.7 million.”

Hausrath added, “It’s a fascinating project. The attention to detail and historic accuracy is incredible. And in the end, the Taft Museum of Art will be preserved, with the major additional benefit of meeting modern museum standards regarding temperature and humidity controls.”

Taft Museum preserves curtains from historic house.

According to Sarah Ditlinger, senior manager, marketing and strategic engagement, “The major structural work of the Bicentennial Infrastructure Project was originally scheduled to take place over the winter of 2020. Due to the pandemic, however, that work was postponed to spring 2022. Despite no increase in scope, this unfortunate delay impacted the total project cost by approximately 20 percent, raising the project total from $10.7 million to $12.7 million. The Taft Museum of Art is committed to continuing this important preservation and is in the process of working to secure additional dollars to help it reach this new goal.”

The solution for a National Historic Landmark was to ensure that all proper protocols and best practices were followed. This included repair of window shutters, proper venting of original windows, installation of a moisture barrier on the envelope of the house, waterproofing, sealing of the foundation, and refinishing the original boards and painting of the house, which is the oldest wooden structure in Cincinnati still in its original location.

Heating, ventilation and air condition (HVAC) resolution had an estimated cost of $4,275,000. An audit of the 2018 HVAC system indicated that it was unable to maintain precise temperature and humidity levels in the galleries. The audit recommended that the building exterior be modified to ensure that appropriate HVAC systems can meet the climatic needs of the historic house and artwork it contains. The museum is updating HVAC technology to achieve a higher functioning HVAC system.

The committee recommended security and fire protection be upgraded at an estimated cost of $1,750,000. Examples were exterior lights and an upgraded fire suppression system.

The National Endowment for the Humanities awarded Taft Museum of Art an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge Grant at a value of $750,000. To receive the grant, Taft raised $3 million to secure the 4:1 match.

According to a press release. “To prepare for rehabilitation work, the Taft began deinstalling the permanent collection from the historic house in May 2021. Since the historic house was inaccessible, the museum moved more than 80 highlights from the collection to the Fifth Third Gallery for an exhibition named “In a New Light | Treasures from the Taft”  (7/3/2021 – 5/1/2022).

Borrowed Gems from the Taft Museum of Art” (7/23/2021 – 2/21/2022) was an exhibition that shared more than 40 works of art with audiences at the Cincinnati Museum Center. The exhibit told the story of the Taft collection and its impact on the Cincinnati community. Each show offered audiences the opportunity to continue to enjoy the museum’s storied artworks, but also offer up new insights as the works are reinterpreted for a 21st-century audience.”

To celebrate the rehabilitation, the Taft is planning Light Up the Night with the Taft gala on June 18 and a Bicentennial Community Celebration on June 26.

Martin Baum, an early resident and businessman of Cincinnati, built the house in approximately 1820. Nicholas Longworth purchased it in 1830 and hired African American painter Robert S. Duncanson to paint eight landscape murals in the grand foyer. They are now recognized as the most significant pre-Civil War domestic murals in the United States. During this rehabilitation, the murals are now in their own bubble, climate-controlled space with vibration sensors.

Taft Museum conservator checks Duncanson murals during renovation.

After Longworth’s residency, David Sinton, father of museum co-founder Anna Sinton Taft, purchased the house. Anna Sinton Taft lived in the house with her husband Charles Phelps Taft from 1873 until their respective deaths in 1931 and 1929.

In 1908, Charles Taft’s half-brother William Howard Taft accepted the nomination for U.S. president underneath the house’s portico adding to its significance in the nation’s public life. By 1927,  Anna and Charles Taft bequeathed to the people of Cincinnati their historic home and private collection of 690 works of art, which included European and American master paintings, including Rembrandt, Hals, Goya, Gainsborough, Reynolds, Turner, Ingres, Whistler and Sargent. Chinese porcelains, and European decorative arts as well as one of the greatest Gothic ivory sculptures in America.

The Taft Museum celebrates the 200th anniversary of the historic house as important in the world of art and the history of Cincinnati.

For more information, visit taftmuseum.org.

–Laura A. Hobson

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