The northern Ohio home of the United States’ 20th president is now restored to its 1885 elegance.
By Tom and Joanne O’Toole
It is written that James A. Garfield may have been the best prepared candidate to seek the office of president of the United States. Indeed, he might well have been during the campaign of 1880, considering his scholarly and political background. But he certainly had not planned to run for president when he arrived at the 1880 Republican Convention, at which he was nominated as the party’s choice.
The James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, helps to reveal the many nuances of Garfield’s personal, educational, and political life, including information about his brief term as 20th U.S. president. The entire site has undergone an extensive, $12.5 million top-to-bottom restoration, and now represents the period of 1880 to 1904.
As presidential homes go, Garfield’s house doesn’t compare in size or architectural grandeur to George Washington’s Mount Vernon or to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Yet it has a distinction and charm all its own. During the six-year renovation process (1992-1998), the exterior was stripped and repainted the gray and maroon colors of 1885; the famous front porch, where Garfield conducted his presidential campaign, was rebuilt; the roof was replaced; and careful attention was given to bringing back the “gingerbread” detailing.
Interior work included preserving all the wood and finishes; the reproduction of 11 different original wallpapers (including those on the ceilings); refurbishing brass light fixtures; and major conservation work on paintings and furnishings.
When Garfield purchased the property in 1876, it was a nine-room, run-down farmhouse with outbuildings on 118 acres. He eventually bought 40 more surrounding acres. In 1880 he enclosed the original structure, adding 11 more rooms to accommodate his large family. He and his wife, Lucretia, had four sons and a daughter living with them, as well as Garfield’s mother. Two other Garfield children (a boy and a girl) died at ages 2 and 3.
Once Garfield’s renovation was completed, the homestead included 20 rooms on three levels “” quite a luxurious place, considering that Garfield was the last chief executive to be born in a log cabin.
Garfield, who had been elected to Congress consecutively since 1862, did not go to the 1880 Republican Convention to be nominated president “” he attended to nominate his friend, John Sherman. But circumstances changed during the event, and Garfield found himself the dark horse nominee.
While covering Garfield’s subsequent “front porch” presidential campaign, newspaper reporters stayed overnight “” literally, camping out “” on the wide expanse of lawn at his property. In a clever play on words, they came to call the home “Lawnfield.” Garfield delivered most of his political oratory from the front porch, and relied on the newspapers to spread the word nationwide. However, more than 17,000 people from around the country came by train to this then-rural community to personally hear Garfield speak.
Mentor had a population of less than 600 at the time, but the railroad built a platform near the Garfield property and made special stops for those who came to hear the presidential candidate speak. They could walk from the platform to Garfield’s home.
Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock, in the 1880 presidential election by a margin of only 10,000 popular votes. He was inaugurated on March 4, 1881, and served only four months before being shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station. Garfield held on for several months, but finally succumbed to infection and internal hemorrhage on September 19, 1881.
Several years after her husband’s death, Lucretia added a large wing to Lawnfield to house a memorial library, and a vault to store his documents. She called it the “memory room.” This 1885-86 addition set the precedent for the existence of presidential libraries to preserve important letters, papers, and memorabilia. But the Garfield library was not open to the public.
“Modern” improvements to the house at that time also included converting the kerosene lighting to gas; adding water throughout the home (brought up from a well to holding tanks in a windmill, then piped to the house); and installing a full bathroom on each floor.
The family received more than $360,000 in public donations after President Garfield’s death “” approximately $6 million in today’s funds “” which made Lucretia and the children wealthy. The home was expanded to add third-floor bedrooms, a laundry room, and other improvements, in addition to the library. When the work was finished, the home took on the expansive appearance of a 30-room Victorian mansion.
Lucretia again remodeled Lawnfield in 1904, and the family retained ownership until 1936. It was then donated to the Western Reserve Historical Society by Garfield’s descendants.
After stopping at the visitors center, walking through the small museum, and watching an 18-minute informative video presentation that details Garfield’s life and career, you’ll be ready to join one of the guided tours through the home. The tour takes approximately 40 minutes, covers 15 rooms, and takes visitors through two floors.
Approximately 80 percent of the home’s furnishings originally belonged to the Garfields. The White House Havilland china is on display in the dining room. But because Garfield served only four months as president before being succeeded by vice president Chester Arthur, few items focus on his achievements while in office.
Visitors can tour two rooms in the rear of the house on their own. These rooms have been turned into a gallery containing photographs of the Garfields and show the home in different stages of development. Visitors are then free to enjoy the grounds and take photos for as long as they want.
While many presidential homes are reached by long, winding driveways after stopping at a visitors center, this is not the case at Lawnfield. The huge home sits just a few steps from the picket fence that parallels the sidewalk along busy U.S. Route 20. The visitors center is toward the back of the property. Outside the center is a slightly weathered relief of President Garfield, and a memorial sundial, atop a round concrete base.
The property now encompasses only 7.82 acres, but in addition to the home, it still includes Garfield’s small campaign office; a 62-foot-tall pump house and windmill; a gas holder; a granary; a barn; a chicken coop; and a tenant house. The original 1893 carriage house now serves as the visitors center.
The windmill was the source of the home’s water supply until 1930 when it sustained extensive wind damage. The existing structure replaced an even earlier windmill. The improved version included a new well, a huge water storage tank within the tower, and a larger windmill to pump water into the tank. During the home’s restoration, the foundation and original stone pump house were repaired, and the wooden tower and windmill were replaced.
If you notice that one of the groundskeepers sitting atop a bright yellow lawn tractor bears a passing resemblance to President Garfield, you’ll be right. Occasionally Jim Garfield, the great-grandson of the late president, volunteers as part of the crew that maintains the grounds. He’s more than willing to chat about his ancestry and the historic site.
The property was designated a National Historic Site in 1980. It is owned by the National Park Service and operated jointly with the Western Reserve Historical Society.
Visit Lawnfield and you’ll gain a greater understanding and appreciation for one of America’s lesser-known presidents.
If You Go
James A. Garfield National Historic Site
8095 Mentor Ave.
Mentor, OH 44060
The site is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5:00 p.m. (It is closed on New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day.)
Admission to the visitors center and its attractions is free, but a fee is charged for tours of Garfield’s house. Cost is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors, $5 for children ages 6 to 12, and free for children age 5 and under. Holders of the National Parks Pass pay $4. Lifts for the handicapped are available at the campaign office and at the front porch of the home. An elevator inside the home enables handicapped visitors to travel from floor to floor.
Other Area Attractions
Lake County, Ohio, offers many other sights and sites, such as the Coulby Mansion (now Wickliffe City Hall); the Fairport Harbor Lighthouse and Marine Museum; and the Lake County History Center. For information about these and other attractions, contact:
Lake County Visitors Bureau
35300 Vine St. – A
Eastlake, OH 44095
James A. Garfield: Preacher, General, And Politician
James Abram Garfield was born in the family log cabin in 1831 in what is now the Cleveland suburb of Moreland Hills. His father died when he was only 2. His mother kept the family together with the help of her older son Thomas and two daughters.
At the age of 16, Garfield was hired as a mule driver to pull flatboats through the Erie Canal. He soon was promoted to bowsman, but this career ended when he fell overboard and almost drowned. It was about this time he began keeping a daily diary.
Eager, talented, and intelligent, Garfield taught school, worked as a carpenter, and attended the Geauga Academy in nearby Chester Township. One of his goals was to learn 12 new words each day.
At the age of 19 he became a member of the Church of the Disciples of Christ, and began preaching. Eventually he became an ordained minister in the church. Garfield attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College). Along the way he met his future wife, Lucretia Rudolph.
Garfield went on to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, became an outstanding student, and graduated with honors in 1856. He also developed into an accomplished public speaker and teacher. He returned to Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as a professor, and a year later “” at the age of 26 “” became the college president. He and Lucretia were married in 1858. He began serving in the Ohio State Senate after being elected in 1859 and studied for admission to the Ohio State Bar Association.
During the Civil War Garfield rose to the rank of major general in the Union Army, leading 4,000 troops to victory in Kentucky. But he contracted camp fever and was sent home. To put his idle time to good use, he set his mind off in another direction, and soon became recognized as an excellent economist. In 1862, while still in the army, he was elected to the U.S. Congress. Fellow Republican President Abraham Lincoln urged him to leave the military, which he did. Garfield went on to serve 18 years in the House of Representatives. On election day in 1880, he was still a member of the House; had won a bid for the U.S. Senate; and additionally captured his bid for the nation’s highest office.
Four months into his term, on July 2, 1881, as he entered the Washington, D.C., railroad station, he was shot in the back by Charles J. Guiteau, who believed Garfield’s administration had turned him down for a job. Garfield lingered another 80 days after the assassination attempt. Repeated probing for the bullet with non-sterile instruments resulted in blood poisoning and an infection that eventually killed him.
When Garfield died on September 19, 1881, he was only 49 years old. He is buried in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery, and his grave monument is a turreted 180-foot tower built of Ohio sandstone. A marble statue of Garfield stands in its center, surrounded by stained-glass windows and a mosaic wall. The Garfield Monument is Lake View’s best known memorial and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The monument was dedicated in a three-hour ceremony attended by President Benjamin Harrison, his vice president, members of the cabinet, and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Garfield accumulated impressive achievements in his brief but accomplished journey through life.
Garfield was the first left-handed president
- He was the first president whose mother attended his presidential inauguration
- Garfield could write Latin with one hand and Greek with the other
- He was the first president to campaign in two languages “” English and German
- He was the last of seven U.S. presidents born in a log cabin