National First Ladies' Library

Rachel PolaniecOct 2019

In charming downtown Canton sits the “Grand Lady of Market Avenue,” a three-story brick house that is quintessentially Victorian: a wrap-around porch, arched windows, and architectural details and chimneys galore.

'The Grand Lady' herself. The architectural detailing on the third floor windows- très exquis!

The house is just gorgeous.

Originally built in 1841 by George DeWalt (1794-1850), the house was expanded around 1865 by his son-in-law James Saxton (1816-1887), a prominent Canton banker and father of three children, of whom Ida was the eldest. In regards to his daughters, James Saxton was unusually progressive for the era. He provided Ida and Mary with quality educations, sent them on a Grand Tour of Europe, and hired Ida at his bank, where she quickly rose to the rank of cashier and, in his absence, manager.

The formal parlor, decked out in the Italianate style. According to the First Ladies’ website, this room boasts a total of twenty-three different wallpapers. The lace curtains are reproductions after an 1876 pattern, and the chrysanthemum-featuring carpet was produced in the same mill that provided some of the carpet for Dolley Madison’s White House (First Lady from 1809-1814).

Ida Saxton McKinley’s portrait, taken around the time of her marriage on 25 January 1871.

A portrait of Ida hanging over the mantel in the parlor shows her as a very elegant and fashionably dressed (and coiffed) young woman. Instead of looking out at the viewer, she glances past the photographer and out of the frame, her eyes bright with an expressive thought. Needless to say, when Major William McKinley caught sight of the intelligent, pretty bank cashier at a summer picnic in Canton in 1867, he was smitten. (Though Ida stated, for her at least, it was not “love at first sight.”) They married in 1871, and the couple lived in Ida’s family home between 1878 and 1891.

William McKinley’s Study, located on the third floor, which it shares with the ballroom. Like teh formal parlor, the wallpaper was all recreated from original photographs. The main pattern, showing vignettes from the Far East, was sent to Bradbury & Bradbury of California who reproduced the blocks to closely resemble the first pattern.

For visitors first arriving on Market Avenue, the “Grand Lady” conjures up such tantalizing stories as these, but a proper visit to the site starts a short walk down the street, at the National First Ladies’ Library. Incorporated in 1997, the Library’s mission is to “preserve, promote and educate about the significant role of First Ladies of the USA and their contributions throughout history,” according to their website. In 2000, the First Ladies National Site was established as the 380th unit of the National Parks Service by President Bill Clinton. In addition to the Saxton-McKinley House, this also includes the 1895 City National Bank Building, where our sojourn begins.

Facade of 1895 City National Bank, donated to the National First Ladies’ Library in 1999 by Marshall Belden, Jr.

The Bank is a suitably dashing host for the trappings of First Lady-dom, with soaring ceilings, high windows, and polished surfaces. This area serves as a more traditional “museum” experience as well as a jumping off point for the house tour. The current exhibit (November 2018), “Life in a Gilded Cage,” explores the official and public duties of the First Lady, chronicling how these have evolved and expanded from century to century, and decade to decade. The role of the First Lady is influenced, not only by the time period in which she serves, but also by her own temperament, personality, and motivators. The letters, photographs, political buttons, and clothing of very different women whose lives span four centuries are woven across the displays, coming together to form a cohesive portrait of what it means to hold the title of First Lady, while that image continues to shift.

Entryway into the Bank; photography inside the museum and of the exhibits is sadly not permitted.

Unlike the Bank, with its rotating displays and intersecting stories of First Ladies, Presidencies, and American history, the Saxon-McKinley House has been restored as it was during the time of Ida and her husband, President William McKinley. My tour was with the delightful Robbin, who began with a brief history of the “Grand Lady” herself: her family, her eventual sale and conversion into a storefront, and her rescue from demolition and reconstruction into the historic site that she is today. Fortunately, photographs taken of the original interiors exist and were used to recreate the wallpaper, curtains, carpets, and rugs, while many of the furnishings that belonged to the family were returned, to once more take their proper place in the home.

The image on the fancy stand is an original photograph showing the layout of the rooms, including furniture and decor. The large bookcase in the adjoining room is seen in the image.

This bookcase (plus the several others like it), is one of the larger objects belonging to the Saxton family that were returned to the house by friends and family who inherited them.

Among the florid trappings of the Victorian decor are the personal items, like Ida’s piano and a pair of the thousands of slippers she knit for family, friends, and charities, making the house feel more like a home, and telling the stories of those who lived there. This is especially true on the second floor, in Ida’s sitting room and bedroom, where the solitary twin bed attests to the loss she suffered on September 14, 1901, when her husband succumbed to the wounds inflicted by the bullets of an assassin. Ida passed away on May 26, 1907, in Canton. She is interred at the McKinley Monument in the city, with her husband and their two daughters.

Ida’s bedroom

McKinley Monument

It is fitting, therefore, to make the short drive from the Saxton-McKinley House, where Ida was born, to the McKinley Monument, where she was laid to rest. While it is the President who is immortalized, let us not forget the First Lady at his side, in this life and on into the next. The National First Ladies’ Library is working to ensure we never will.

Further Reading:

Rachel Polaniec

Rachel Polaniec

Copywriter, Historic travel writer, seamstress, War of 1812 reenactor, and lover of all things Jane Austen.

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