In the midst of Downtown Cincinnati, there is a much beloved architecturally and historically significant building celebrating its 200th birthday. With the exception of a few other early American and European Colonial and Native American structures on this continent, most have not survived and even fewer in this region of our country. Cincinnati was founded in 1788, so this home at the time would have only been constructed 32 years after its settlement. Even then, it was considered the most beautiful and desirable residence, and that feeling continues to this day. Designed in the Federal Style, its construction was of wood instead of brick or stone, the latter materials considered more durable and less prone to fire and infestation. Due to this, its survival in wood siding is all the more remarkable and worthier of our veneration.
This bicentennial home is the Baum-Longworth-Taft Residence, better known today as The Taft Museum of Art. Located at 316 Pike Street on Lytle Park, it has managed to survive certain episodes which might have prevented this year’s celebration. Its most harrowing situation was during the planning in the 1960’s by the Federal Government for the pathway of Interstate 71. Although not scheduled to be demolished, planners intended to destroy Lytle Park and surrounding buildings to make way for this expressway. The result would have been to create a great divide between The Taft and the rest of Downtown, separating the museum from the continuation of Fourth Street where the sidewalk begins. This exposed 8-lane concrete freeway would have subjected it to noise and air pollution, as well as visual unsightliness. Western & Southern Life Insurance Co., a major land owner in the Lytle Park district, stepped forward to help pay for a tunnel to be constructed under a new park. Today, it would seem unthinkable to have this division between Downtown, Fourth Street, and The Taft. Fortunately with the intervention of civic leaders, Cincinnatians do not need to fathom the results from this ill-conceived plan.
Two hundred years ago, Martin Baum (1765-1831) and his wife, Ann Sommerville Wallace Baum (1782-1864), built their new home, named “Belmont”, on the eastern edge of the city. Initially situated on a nine acre site, the property’s current width remained the same but extended all the way to the top of Mt. Adams. Mr. Baum was one of America’s early vintners, extending his vineyard up the steep hillside. Halfway up Mt. Adams, he created the Apollonian Garden, designed by a German landscape architect/gardener named Johannes Staebler, who created for Mr. Baum the first vineyard in Cincinnati. Mr. Baum allowed anyone to ascend the hill to his garden to enjoy the view of it, as well as Cincinnati and the Ohio River valley.
Reputed to be our city’s first wealthy entrepreneur, Mr. Baum was also our city’s best promoter, encouraging newly arrived European immigrants at Philadelphia and Baltimore to venture west to Cincinnati. Not only was he the President of the Bank of the United States in our city, he also owned a woolen mill, flour mill, iron foundry, sugar refinery, an exporting company, and a number of river vessels. In addition, he helped organize a library, school, museum, literary society, agricultural society, and several musical groups. If this was not enough, he was involved in making the Ohio River navigable year round by constructing a dam and locks at the falls in Louisville, as well as building the Miami & Erie Canal, thereby connecting our region with Lake Erie and the Eastern seaboard. It should not be of any surprise that a person of his interests would build a beautiful and enduring home for him and his family.
Mr. Baum and his wife were familiar with Maryland and Virginia architecture as their states of origin respectively. Although their home’s architect is unknown (if indeed there was one), clearly its design and planning are similar to Baltimore’s “Homewood” (1801) and Stono, Virginia’s three-part Palladian plan house (1818). Similarities include their raised First Floors (or “piano nobile”), domination by a pedimented Doric portico, and, like Jefferson’s “Monticello”, there was an effort to suppress their rooflines to make them appear one story in height, as in the cases of “Homewood” and “Belmont”. In spite of much research, no one has ever been specifically identified as the architect of “Belmont”.
Unfortunately due to an economic panic, the Baums were forced to sell back to his bank their home, but with only approximately half of its original acreage as a part of the transaction. Five acres, extending from east of Deer Creek (where Eggleston Avenue is today) to the top of Mt. Adams, was retained by the family in order to build an even larger residence halfway up the hill facing Downtown and the Ohio River. This latter home of the Baums survived for approximately 110 years and was demolished in the construction of the Fifth Street Viaduct, linking city streets to Columbia Parkway. Between home owners, the bank leased “Belmont” as a female academy which occupied it for several years.
On September 10, 1829, Nicholas Longworth (1782-1863) purchased “Belmont” for him and his family. As the second largest taxpayer in America, just after Mr. William Backhouse Astor, Sr. (1792-1875), Mr. Longworth had made his fortune as an attorney, land owner, business man, and vintner. Through his marriage to Susan Howell, whose father had served in the Revolutionary War and had been provided land for his service, the Longworths owned and acquired much of the hillsides east of downtown, blanketing them with Catawba grapevines, that they made famous for their wine-making. Mr. Longworth was one of our City’s first collectors of fine art, and “Belmont” provided the appropriate backdrop for his paintings and sculptures. Reputedly, the earliest and largest work of art to make its way west of the Alleghenies was Benjamin West’s “Ophelia & Laertes” (1796), which hung in what is today The Taft’s Music Room and was donated by the Longworths to the Cincinnati Art Museum, where it can be viewed now. Mr. Longworth was not only a passionate collector, he was also an art patron for many prominent artists, including Hiram Powers, Robert S. Duncanson, and Lilly Martin Spencer. In 1850, Mr. Longworth hired the African-American artist Duncanson (1821-1872) to paint 8 large landscape murals for his Entrance Hall, each surrounded by trompe l’oeil French rococo frames. These are considered by scholars to be one of America’s most significant and distinctive examples of early domestic mural decorations. They combine wallpaper fashions with domestic mural painting and the art of landscape painting: this tour de force has become one of the museum’s most important holdings as a part of the home’s architecture. It should be noted that it was Mrs. Charles Phelps Taft—the third homeowner following the Longworths—who happened to remember from her youth that these Duncanson murals still existed and had been covered by layers of paint and wallpapers over the decades by her family. Had she not communicated this to architects Garber & Woodward before the restoration process began, these extraordinary murals might have been permanently lost forever.
The earliest known image of “Belmont” appears to be the 50th wedding anniversary invitation celebrating the marriage of Nicholas and Susan Longworth on Christmas Eve, 1857. This drawing of the Pike Street entrance façade has proven to be extremely helpful in identifying its architectural and landscape origins for architects, historians, and museum officials.
Nicholas Lonngworth was able to enjoy living at “Belmont” until 1863 when he died, with his widow following in 1866. At that time, their estate leased the home to Francis E. Suire, who remained there until 1871. Industrialist David Sinton (1808-1900) and his only daughter, Anna (1852-1931), became the next owners and occupants of the home. Anna was coming of age, and her father was determined to have them occupying a home of distinction and significance for her debut. “Belmont’s” beauty, location, and history provided the perfect solution in their quest for a new residence. On December 4, 1873, Anna married Charles Phelps Taft (1843-1929) in the home’s Music Room, where they continued to reside until their respective deaths. Her father, David, also resided there until his death.
The Sintons/Tafts altered the appearance of the house by first enlarging it in providing a bachelor suite for David and adding a porte cochere at the same time. Designed by a former employee of the renowned Boston architect H.H. Richardson, William Martin Aiken (1855-1908) had come to Cincinnati to supervise construction of Richardson’s Chamber of Commerce Building and decided to stay. “Belmont’s” addition is one of the earliest versions of Federal Revivalism in creating a nearly seamless design to its 1820’s beginnings. When constructed in 1880, this represents early sensitivity on the part of the architect to the building’s original style. In 1910, the Cincinnati architectural firm of Elzner & Anderson enlarged their existing Dining Room by expanding eastward onto the rear covered porch and creating a small Breakfast Room nook on the south façade. These expansions were also sensitively done, and the Dining Room’s enlargement provided a space much more conducive to dining and entertaining on a grand scale. Continuing in the classical style, the architects chose the Adam Period more specifically, with Chippendale- and Hepplewhite-Style furniture consistent with fashionable Georgian- Revival Dining Rooms. Above the table, the architects added a magnificent oval plasterwork medallion for the room’s focus. There were other interior décor changes during the ownership of the Sintons/Tafts, but nothing which really altered the basic plan of the original house, other than those previously mentioned.
With the passing of David Sinton in 1900, Anna and Charles Phelps Taft went on a one year buying spree, acquiring some of the finest works of art and ceramics available at that time in the world. English painters are heavily represented by Gainsborough, Lawrence, Constable, Reynolds, Raeburn, Romney, and Hoppner, among others. French artists represented include Corot, Millet, Daubigny, Ingres, Limosin, Decamps, and Rousseau. Of particular note are their Dutch masters which have Rembrandt, Jan Steen, De Hooch, Frans Hals, and Hobbema represented. Other important paintings are by Goya, Van Dyck, and American artists John Singer Sargent, Frank Duveneck, and Henry Farny. In addition to these paintings are French enamels from the 13th– to 17th-cenruries, Italian majolicas, Chinese vases and porcelains, a terra cotta relief by della Robbia, and an impressive watch collection dating from the 16th-19th-centuries.
Upon return from their international travels, the Tafts were shocked to find that large buildings on either side of their home had been constructed on the property lines and removed lovely 19th-century mansions and park-like terrain. This reality made them realize that, with their deaths, “Belmont” might not survive for posterity—at that time, the home was already 80 years old and considered quite historic. Charles Phelps Taft had been one of the original proponents in the creation of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and he and his wife did not want to establish competing art institutions. Instead, they thought that “Belmont” could be a satellite or annex to the main complex in Eden Park, so that they could reinforce one another and allow their art collection to continue inside their home without being mixed with the museum’s other acquisitions. Furthermore, the home could be restored to its original 1820 character, removing Victorian interior intrusions which had occurred over time. The Tafts established the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts to oversee the home and collection, but the Cincinnati Art Museum’s Director, Walter Siple, would be The Taft’s Director as well. This arrangement lasted from 1932 at its opening to Mr. Siple’s departure in 1945. It was determined that both museums needed their own separate management and direction, enabling the Fine Arts Board to hire Katherine Hanna as its own Director.
The Cincinnati architectural firm of Garber & Woodward was hired to do the restoration and transformation of “Belmont” into The Taft Museum of Art. The firm did trailblazing work, since restoring buildings then was not common. Much research was done to enable them to make informed decisions and to allow future generations to be aware of their thought processes. Numerous photographs of existing conditions and proposed drawing alternatives were the result, and have been very instructive over the years. At approximately the same time, the recreation of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia began, and the Rockefellers, their architects, and historians were quite instructive in providing the approach taken with The Taft. This was to take The Taft back to its original design—sometimes with salvaged architectural components, sometimes with new materials— and to be uncompromising about it. An example of this can be found at the front entrance. The handsome double-door with a large fanlight and flanking sidelights represent the prototypical Federal Style doorway. Yet for this building, there is no historical basis for this doorway’s form, since the earliest known depiction of the house was the 1857 wedding anniversary invitation lithograph, showing no fanlight or sidelights. The architects and Mr. Siple decided on a scheme not based on any historical evidence, but rather on their feelings that the Foyer would not have been left windowless originally. Several different options were explored based upon other known doorways of the period, and their accepted new scheme was more consistent with the Federal Style. Other examples of recreations with its interior can be found with the rooms’ mantels. Only one original wooden mantel has survived from Baum’s original home, the rest had been replaced primarily by the Longworths with arched Italianate white Carrara marble ones, probably at the time of their 50th wedding anniversary in 1857, and one by the Tafts in their remodeled Library. For their replacement, mantels were salvaged from nearby residences, figuring that probably the same craftsman may have worked in these neighboring homes. Where the architects and Mr. Siple differed involved the Duncanson Murals: Garber & Woodward felt that the murals should be removed from the home’s Foyer, in order to allow the interior to be consistent with the Federal Style of 1820. Trained as an art historian, Mr. Siple felt strongly that they must be retained and fully restored in situ for the Taft’s collection. Fortunately, Mr. Siple won that argument in allowing the public to appreciate Longworth’s patronage of this significant African-American artist.
In addition to the outstanding art collection, Mr. Siple was able to acquire several pieces of furniture from the workshop of Duncan Phyfe, coming from the esteemed collection of Louis Guerineau Myers (treasurer of the John D. Rockefeller Fund). The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Colonial Williamsburg have also been fortunate to receive pieces of furniture from his collection, and the Phyfe pieces are particularly appropriate to the style and time period of the house.
One of the great Directors of The Taft was Dr. Ruth K. Meyer. Besides helping to establish exciting exhibits and programs, her lasting contribution clearly was the exhaustive research for the museum’s catalogue, which she and her staff compiled over a 10 year period. This major accomplishment continues to be an invaluable resource for both the museum and historians.
From 2001-2004 with the guidance of Director Philip Long, The Taft Museum of Art underwent a major remodeling and addition to its building. Architect Ann Beha was selected to extend a new addition to the east, providing the museum with a new temporary exhibition gallery, a café, a lecture hall, an enlarged museum shop, a covered parking garage, and more office space.
Current Director Deborah Emont Scott, along with her staff, has provided a number of excellent exhibitions for our viewing pleasure. Recently, she announced a $750,000 N.E.H. grant for the restoration of The Taft’s original exterior façade. This news seems quite appropriate for the200th birthday celebration of a splendid architectural creation, which will help it continue throughout the 21st-century for all of us to enjoy.