Sunday, March 5, 2017

Pre-renovation carriage house theater - James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Renovated carriage house theater - James A. Garfield National Historic Site

At top is a "before" and "after" picture of the west end of the gas holder (now a theater) in the renovated carriage house at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.

Not-yet President James A. Garfield bought the farm in 1876. When Garfield was assassinated in 1881, presidents did not receive a pension. Friends raised $300,000 (about $7.5 million in 2017 inflation-adjusted dollars) to help Mrs. Lucretia Garfield live comfortably.

About 1885, natural gas was discovered on the Garfield property. A "gas holder" -- a one-story, stone and brick structure with cone roof -- was built. It was a half-octagon on the east (where the well was) and a plank-floored rectangular workroom on the west. A well about 10 feet across was dug about 100 feet down into the earth. The well was partially filled with water. As the gas oozed out of the soil, it encountered the water, which trapped the gas. There was just enough water in the well that the gas couldn't push the water out of the well. This left the gas beneath the water under pressure. Pipes just below the water level forced the gas into pipes which led to the Garfield house. There it was used for lighting, cooking, and heating.

Carriage House pre 1905 - Garfield National Historic Site

In 1893, Lucretia Garfield built a carriage house attached to the gas holder. A rectangular carriage room was built at an angle to the gas holder (its northeast corner touched the northwest corner of the gashouse). Extending north from the carriage room were (from south to north) a tack room and two horse stalls on the west. Two more horse stalls were built to the east. An ell-shaped wall created an open shed by enclosing the west and north sides.

Between 1900 and 1905, the carriage house was expanded. Two new stalls were built on the north end of the west wall, and the two existing stalls reconfigured to create a large blacksmith shop and a small storage room. Two new stalls were added on the north end of the east side as well. A narrow corridor existed north of these new east-side stalls leading outside. A new wing was added north of the workroom of the gas holder. This consisted of two workrooms against the north wall of the gashouse, and three new work and storage rooms to the north of these. This created an "aisle" between the two wings of the carriage house. It was roofed over, and sliding recessed doors installed in the north wall.

Carriage House post 1905 - Garfield National Historic Site

Lucretia Garfield sold 46.7 acres of the farm's 160 acres in 1908. She died in 1918, and her brother, Joseph Rudolph lived at Garfield House. He made almost no repairs to the buildings and died in 1934. By this time, the house, carriage house, barns, and other structures were in decrepit condition.

The Garfield children sold the house, all its contents (and they were extensive), and about 1.1 acres of the estate in 1934 to the Western Reserve Historical Society, which made extensive repairs. The heirs sold the carriage house and about 3.3 acres of the estate to the WRHS in 1944. (The rest of the estate was sold to developers.) A developer donated 0.3 acres to the WRHS in 1959, and it bought 3.4 acres from one of the descendants of the heirs in 1975.

Garfield House was designated a National Historic Site in 1980. In 1988, the WRHS -- no longer able to maintain the house -- sold it to the National Park Service.

By 1945, the carriage house was in poor shape. It received new exterior paint and a new roof in 1951. By 1984, only the rectangular carriage room was used (displaying five historic carriages, only two of which were owned by the Garfields). the north-central wing was used for storage, but the rest of the structure was not -- and it was nearing the point where it could not be repaired.

In 1948, the WRHS opened a museum dedicated to Garfield and Lawnfield on the third floor above the original house. The walls which created three bedrooms and a corridor here were removed in 1963.

In 1984, NPS developed a general management plan for the Garfield National Historic Site which envisioned turning the carriage house into a visitor museum. The east stables became the gift shop. The western part of the Gas Holder and the adjoining space (between the gashouse and carriage space) became a theater. The rest of the carriage house became a small museum dedicated to the life of Garfield.

On Saturday, March 4, I took the "Behind the Scenes" tour at the Garfield National Historic Site. It was awesome. The volunteer talked at length about the chnges to the carriage house, and how the Park Service worked hard not to change much. She showed us where the stall doors still are, where original wood is still used, and even how the brick wall of the gas holder and the bricks in the floor and the rubble-stone foundations are all still in place. It was so cool!!!

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