Everyone is familiar with William Howard Taft’s time at the White House, though far fewer people are aware that the 27th president’s older half-brother, Charles Phelps Taft, had his own stately “white house”—a residence that would be transformed into an art museum of international importance.

The Other Mr. Taft's White House

William T. Konop

Above: Raimundo de Madrazo Garreta, Charles Phelps Taft, 1902, oil on
canvas.

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art.

Exterior of the house from the front.

BART VAN DER ZEE

The music room at the Taft Museum.

BART VAN DER ZEE

Above: Thomas Gainsborough (English, 1727–1788), Edward and William
Tomkinson
, about 1784, oil on canvas.

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art.

Pierre Reymond, Casket with the Triumph of Diana, circa 1550, gilt
metal with enameled plaques.

BART VAN DER ZEE

Jean Ducrollay, Snuffbox with Floral Still Lifes, Paris, France, circa
1758, gold, enamel and diamonds. Enamels by Hamelin.

BART VAN DER ZEE

The Taft Museum of Art, located on Pike Street, near the Ohio River, in Cincinnati, is the former residence of lawyer, entrepreneur, politician and newspaper publisher Charles Phelps Taft and his wife, Anna Sinton Taft. The couple was listed in the Social Register at the Pike Street address from the earliest Cincinnati edition of the book in 1910, until 1931. Today, the museum’s approximately 720-piece collection of masterpiece paintings, porcelains, enamels and decorative arts derives from a collection that Charles Phelps and Anna Taft assembled over the first several decades of the 20th century.

 

The Pike Street residence was built around 1820 for a Cincinnati businessman, Martin Baum. The Federal design home in the Palladian style was purchased nearly a decade later by attorney and wine-maker Nicholas Longworth (great-grandfather of Speaker of the House of Representatives Nicholas Longworth III, who married Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice). Longworth used his considerable means to expand the residence through the addition of two wings and to add high-end finishes to the interior, such as the stunning landscape murals by the African-American artist Robert S. Duncanson. Interestingly, while he resided on Pike Street, Longworth’s own brand of sparkling Catawba wine was served at the hotel to the future King Edward VII of Great Britain (traveling under the title of Lord Renfrew) during the Royal’s 1860 visit to the Queen City. In 1871, the house was purchased by David Sinton, business magnate and future father-in-law of Charles Phelps Taft, who would marry Sinton’s daughter at a ceremony held inside the residence two years later. Sinton had gained a great fortune in various industries, including iron-making, and he further expanded the home, adding another bedroom wing and making other alterations.

 

When David Sinton died at the turn of the 20th century, he left his daughter Anna, his primary heir, a large fortune and the Pike Street mansion. In fact, Anna and Charles Phelps Taft had resided at her father’s home since their marriage, but with the new infusion of wealth from her inheritance (Charles was also wealthy in his own right) they set about making additional improvements to the interior of the house, and began building a collection of art and antiques that, over the course of nearly 30 years, came to rival any held in private hands in America. To this end, the Tafts purchased a stunning collection of masterpiece-quality paintings by artists such as Rembrandt (A Man Rising From His Chair), Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, Frans Hals, J. M. W. Turner, Jacob and Willem Maris, John Singer Sargent (Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson), and Charles-François Daubigny; as well as works by several nationally known artists who resided in the Cincinnati area at some point, including Frank Duveneck and the accomplished painter of Native American subjects, Henry Farny. Additionally, the Tafts obtained a set of miniature paintings on ivory of all the presidents up to and including Hoover.

 

In addition to the paintings, the Tafts decorated their mansion with outstanding examples of European decorative arts. These pieces range from a 14th-century silver and crystal double reliquary, to 16th-century French enamel portraits, as well as candlesticks and boxes covered in gilt metal and enamel plaques with religious or classical designs. Equally exquisite are the Tafts’ collection of 18th-century enamel and gold watches that they purchased from a French antique house, representing an amazing and colorful testament to ancient technology and artistry. Also within the sphere of the enamel collection are snuff boxes, the highly embellished metal notebook cover attributed to the House of Peter Carl Fabergé and other fine small objects.

 

As with any great collection of decorative arts, Charles and Anna Taft purchased numerous examples of antique Chinese porcelains, spanning many periods, with the earliest small statues dating from the Tang Dynasty. The blue and white motif appears on the many examples of ceramic vases, boxes and even teapots of the Qing Dynasty that the couple purchased, though many of the later pieces from this reign were more colorful in design.

John Singer SargentRobert Louis Stevenson, 1887, oil on canvas.

Courtesy of the Taft Museum of Art.

While the Tafts purchased items related to their personal taste and enjoyment, as philanthropists who had underwritten many artistic endeavors they ultimately wanted to provide access to their treasures to the public. Thus, Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft pledged their residence and art collection to a public museum upon their deaths and willed funds toward its establishment and care. Charles died in 1929 and, following the death of Anna Taft in 1931, the Taft Museum opened in 1932. Unlike a structurally austere, purpose-built art museum, the Taft is truly a feast for the senses. The collection of important American furniture that fills the mansion adds to the experience, giving visitors the feeling they have stepped back in time as guests in a warm family home of a bygone age. This unique charm is recognized as a major asset by the Taft’s current director and CEO, Deborah Emont Scott, who notes, “There are few places in the world where you can gaze on such a precious collection of art—and even fewer where you can enjoy a world-class collection in the comfort and elegance of such a beautiful historic house. Visitors love the Taft because it feels familiar, comfortable and wonderfully intimate.”

 

In 2004, during the directorship of Phillip C. Long, the museum had a new grand opening, after an impressive $22-million renovation and the addition of a new gallery space for visiting exhibitions, a parking garage, a more substantial museum shop, an educational lecture hall and a café. While maintaining the integrity of the house-museum that the Tafts envisioned, the museum’s current partnership with corporate sponsors, exhibit exchanges with other museums, its updated facilities and immaculate gardens, which are now a popular rental site for weddings and corporate events, have kept the museum on a strong footing for the future. According to current Taft chief Deborah Emont Scott, “The expansion offers immense opportunities to showcase the Taft’s collection to the community in new and interesting ways and to maintain the Taft Museum of Art as a relevant, cherished place for everyone. The expanded facilities have brought more vibrancy to the Taft than ever before.”

 

Though not as famous as his younger brother, Charles Phelps Taft was a very accomplished man of diverse interests and contributions. In fact, Charles had ownership interest in two Major League Baseball teams—the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs—and was the owner and editor of the Cincinnati Time-Star newspaper. Charles also had his own brief political career and served in the Ohio State House and, later, as a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives to the 54th Congress.

 

It is worth noting in this tale of the two Mr. Tafts, that William Howard Taft accepted the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency from the portico of his brother’s mansion in 1908, and that Charles Phelps Taft, after financially backing his brother’s successful campaign, commissioned a portrait of the new president at the White House—which he proudly hung in his own white house.