You get three weeks of vacation a year if you’re lucky. One gets chewed up by the holiday season and one goes to the musical festival, Renaissance faire or erotica convention of your choosing. A few days get burned off visiting the alcoholic codependents of your spouse or significant other. That leaves one long weekend a year to better yourself by visiting a presidential site.
How on earth can you choose? Only Zachary Taylor is lacking an accessible home (it’s now a private residence), and if you’re willing to risk being shot by the Louisville, Ky., police, you can even see that. Your civic journey could take you almost anywhere.
Fortunately for you, I’ve done the scouting. I’ve been to every presidential grave, most of the birthplaces and homes, and the Quayle Vice Presidential Learning Center. I love them all, but I also know where you’ll get the most bang for your presidential vacation buck. You want Plymouth Notch, Vermont.
Calvin Coolidge was a Republican governor from Massachusetts, but he came into the world on July 4, 1872, in a room behind a general store in the Notch. Then as now, Vermont was the quaintness capital of America, with quilts on every bed and fine fruit preserves on tap. John Calvin Coolidge Sr. was the town’s civic linchpin, serving as the town jailer, notary, general store owner, postmaster, hairdresser, confessor and pilates instructor. He was also a dairy farmer, and a partner in the cheese factory.
The point is, the man and the town were stoically self-sufficient, and from those roots sprang our stoically self-sufficient 30th president. Coolidge Jr. returned to the Notch when he wanted to relax. As vice president, he was there in 1923 when Warren Harding realized his limitations by dying. At 2:47 a.m. on August 3, Coolidge took the oath of office in the living room of his dad’s house. The oath was administered by his dad – as a notary, he was the only one qualified to do it.
Coolidge came back to the Notch during his presidency. He needed some down time in 1924, after an infection suddenly killed his son. For a few weeks that summer, the country was run from a makeshift office above the town’s gas station / general store.
Somewhere around 1935, someone got the bright idea to essentially laminate the whole town. When you visit today, the main street is pretty close to its 1930s look; there’s the general store, the church, the Coolidge farm house and a (totally functional) cheese factory. The oath-of-office living room is the same. If you’re lucky, you’ll get stoic and crusty guides on porch rocking chairs who also date from the 1930s. The whole thing is stunningly sincere, right down to Coolidge’s humble marker in the nearby cemetery.
Even if you don’t know much about Coolidge, walking around Plymouth Notch for an hour can help you understand him — the town is like a cultural park for old-fashioned conservatism. Plus, it has a cheese factory. On the off chance you’re lactose intolerant, don’t worry about it. You’re still in Vermont. Throw a rock from the parking lot and you’re going to hit either a brewery or a stoic New England pot dealer.
If quaint isn’t your style — or if you vomit in your mouth at the thought of entering a Republican home — then you want to visit Hyde Park. Drive up the Hudson from New York City. If you reach the Vanderbilt place, you’ve gone too far.
The guy who devised the New Deal didn’t have it so bad under the old deal. The Roosevelts were obscenely rich – you can make a nice living off inheritance, investments, shipping and opium dealing in the Orient, if you don’t mind the hours. The Roosevelts probably could have ended the Depression with the proceeds from a yard sale.
FDR was born in 1882 at Springwood, the 20,000 square-foot mansion on the Hyde Park estate. By the time he died, the place was entirely his own: The walls were decked out with nautical prints (he was a boating freak), the display cabinets were stuffed with the stuffed birds of his youth (he was a taxidermy freak), and Eleanor was often in her own home down the road, probably because FDR cheated on her mercilessly (he was a freak, period).
Some smart guy said Mount Vernon is the autobiography Washington never wrote. Hyde Park is the trashy Fox drama FDR never starred in. Springwood was technically his mom’s house until he was well into adulthood. (And make no mistake, FDR was a momma’s boy. His mother basically raised his children and humiliated his wife.) The social areas of the house were arranged for deception — FDR could hide his polio from visitors by stage-managing the flow of guests and carefully orchestrating his entrances and exits.
Then there’s Top Cottage. Springwood was FDR’s home, but the mansion did not offer an escape from public life. When FDR wanted privacy — of the kind you can’t get at a vacation mansion in Maine or the Georgia bungalow where you take your mistress — he went to a handicapped-accessible bachelor pad of his own design, just through the forest. Not far away from Top Cottage is Val-Kill — Eleanor’s home, which started as a cottage for her and two of her lady friends. Cough, cough. You can understand why the five Roosevelt kids had something like 15 divorces. Thanksgiving couldn’t have been relaxing at the Roosevelt household.
Hyde Park is dripping with personality and probably a couple of other things; since its residents reshaped the course of Western civilization, you’re gonna find something to like.
If neither of my favorite sites gets your pulse racing, come to Washington, bring some comfortable shoes, and try to hop the White House fence. It’s the most memorable presidential site visit possible, guaranteed. Assuming the taser doesn’t affect your memory.
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