It’s easy to forget that the 44 enormous men who have taken the oath of office as Commander-in-Chief had lived beyond the Oval Office, yet several of them retired to similarly beautiful grounds once their days in Washington were done. Some erected opulent monuments to themselves and their achievements, while others built more modest homes as a way to get away from the world. Here are 11 historically conserved mansions worth seeing if you want to walk where they walked and gaze out at the same landscapes that influenced their political leanings (one way or another).
George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon is one of the first and most well-known presidential houses. In fact, because Washington was so eager to return to his estate that he turned down a third term in office when the American people urged him, Mount Vernon’s attractiveness most likely prevented the United States from becoming something even closer to a monarchy.
The grounds are so magnificent that they could have coined the phrase bucolic, and the home is well kept, with most of its original furnishings (and paint colors – the tour guides will go on and on about the mint hue Washington picked for the dining room in the hopes of aiding digestion). There’s no word on whether it worked or not.) It also provides the most educational experience of all the presidential estate visits. Every year, it welcomes hundreds of school field excursions, and you’ll learn not only about our first president, such as the fact that he was a distiller (our first hipster home brewer) but also about everyday life in America’s infancy. Guides discuss the estate’s heritage of slavery, including how physicians bled George Washington, and explain the estate’s gruesome medical procedures of the period, including how Mr. Washingon begged for all his slaves to be liberated following his death.
There is no finer view into presidential history than Mount Vernon.
Local Tip: Visit on a Sunday. On weekdays, there are a lot of school field trips. On Saturdays, the place is packed with tourists. Sundays are often peaceful, and you can attend a mock service in the grounds’ church.
Franklin D. Roosevelt (Hyde Park, New York)
Franklin D. Roosevelt owned a New York estate, which is now managed by the National Park Service. This was his Springwood mansion, but it also had a library, which was ultimately transferred to the federal government.
Visitors may learn about the great man who was re-elected four times in a row by visiting his residence, which has been transformed into a museum. There are interactive exhibitions as well as unique relics relating to his presidency, however, it will close in 2020 for a few months so that repairs can be completed.
Lyndon B. Johnson (Stonewall, Texas)
Because he spent so much time at this residence during his administration, it became known as the Texas White House. You may explore the ranch in your own car and see things like the family cemetery, the birthplace of the president, and the ranch for yourself.
It is free, however, you must obtain a permit from the park officials in order to enter the premises. The mansion was originally open for tours of the inside, however, it has since been closed owing to structural issues. If you are sincerely interested in knowing more about this period of our history, ranger-led tours of the grounds are still available upon request.
John Adams, Peacefield
The Adams family owns three homes in Quincy, Massachusetts, the hometown of both our second and sixth presidents, John Adams and his son John Quincy. The first two houses are on the same property, on a residential road that looks like any other in Quincy. The first home is where John Adams was born, and the second is the house he constructed when he married Abigail, which includes a realistic recreation of the writing desk on which he drafted the Massachusetts State Constitution, which would later serve as a basis for the United States Constitution. Peacefield, the retirement estate of John and Abigail Adams, is a short distance down the road. The estate is smaller than that of Washington and Jefferson (interesting fact: the Adams purchased it sight unseen when in France, and Abigail Adams sobbed when she saw it in person since she had imagined it to be much larger). While John was serving in Washington, Abigail would add to it). The gardens are wonderfully modest, and the tour contains valuable information about our second and sixth presidents.
If you haven’t had enough of the Adams family by this time, you may pay a visit to their tombs at United First Parish Church in Quincy.
Local Tip: Winter is not a good time to visit. The open-air trolley is the only method to travel to any of the Adams’ dwellings.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
The renowned mansion of Thomas Jefferson has been shown on two pieces of US money (the nickel and, temporarily, the $2 note). Jefferson, a self-taught architect, planned the estate and worked on it until his death in 1826. It was one of his proudest achievements; like George Washington, Jefferson made no secret of his preference for Monticello over the newly constructed White House (in fact, his presidency isn’t mentioned on his tombstone, which is bumped off by his role as founder of the University of Virginia, a fact that UVA students will almost certainly point out while you’re there). And, similar to Mount Vernon, Green meadows, crystal lakes, and distinctive and spectacular architecture make the grounds very stunning. Despite its grandeur, it’s difficult to overlook the fact that Monticello is a monument to slavery. Thankfully, the tour guides do not avoid the subject. Mulberry Row, a tour of the slave houses dedicated solely to Monticello‘s history of slavery, operates with upwards of 100 slaves at its peak.
The juxtaposition of the exquisite, ornate building with Mulberry Row gives a wonderful object lesson on the genius and shortcomings of our founding fathers, as well as the disparities in our perspective against the realities of American history.
Local tip: Since visiting Monticello isn’t inexpensive, acquire the behind-the-scenes pass while you’re there. It gives you access to the dome’s interior as well as the top chambers, notably the one where Jefferson died on July 4, 1826. (incidentally, just hours before his friend and fellow founder John Adams).
James Madison’s Montpelier
If James Madison is one of our country’s most underappreciated founding fathers, then Montpelier is one of the most underappreciated presidential estates. The architecture is basic yet classic, the grounds are well-kept, peaceful, and green (and, most significantly, not swamped with visitors), and the property has a fascinating history. Dolly Madison was obliged to sell Montpelier to settle her son’s substantial debts after years of legendary hospitality to some of the nascent nation’s most distinguished individuals. The property passed through several owners until being restored to its former state by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The primary reason to visit Montpelier is to learn more about James Madison, who was a vital architect of the American government. The best feature, by far, is its library, which has the collection of books he read when brainstorming the development of the new United States government.
Local tip: Visit the Montpelier Wine Festival the first weekend in May. It is home to 25 Virginia wineries. Get a little tipsy and scream about the difference between a democracy and a democratic republic around the grounds.
The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson
There’s just one reason to go to The Hermitage, and it has nothing to do with the building (it’s simply a 19th-century McMansion): Andrew Jackson was arguably insane. He took involved in anything from five to one hundred duels, some of which took place while he was in power. He was wounded in the chest once, so near to the aorta that the bullet remained stuck there for the rest of his life, but he managed to return fire and kill his attacker before dying to his wound. After an attempted assassination, he attacked the perpetrator and thrashed him with his cane until members of Congress had to physically hold him (and later built a statue of himself commemorating the incident, because of course, he did). In-office, Jackson used his veto pen in the same way he wielded his cane. His wife, for whom he built much of The Hermitage, was the subject of the nation’s first presidential sex scandal when it was revealed during his campaign that his wife was still married to another man when they married (incidentally, her honor was the subject of most of those duels). Lyncoya, a Native American youngster, was adopted by the man who orchestrated the terrible Trail of Tears. He would not settle down, even if he was dead. His beloved parrot had to be taken from the burial because it wouldn’t stop cursing, no doubt channeling his former owner.
The Hermitage would be just another Southern plantation with a tainted racial past if it weren’t for Andrew Jackson. It’s a Southern plantation with a fascinating — albeit dangerous — past resident in Andrew Jackson, and that alone makes it worthwhile to see.
Local tip: Get a little buzzed at one of Nashville’s many boozy brunch spots (we recommend Mad Donna’s in East Nashville — they have a Bloody Mary bar), then head to the Hermitage and wonder why more men who settled political disputes with duels haven’t been elected to the highest office in the land.
William Henry Harrison’s Grouseland
William Henry Harrison was not an especially impressive president — in case you don’t know who he is, he’s the one who died of pneumonia a month after taking office after refusing to wear a coat to his cold and rainy March inauguration, during which he spoke for a record two hours — and Grouseland is not an especially impressive estate. Indiana, on the other hand, is quite proud of it. It’s billed as “Indiana’s first brick residence,” “the seat of state government,” and “a bulwark in times of unrest.” The only reference of William Henry Harrison in the advertising materials is as the Governor of Indiana, not as the short-lived President of the United States. It’s still worth a visit, if only to pay respect to our shortest-serving president, and, more crucially, to the last season of Parks and Recreation, in which William Henry Harrison has a role possibly even more prominent than at the White House. After all, when are you going to visit Indiana again?
Local tip: Do not, under any circumstances, bring up William Henry Harrison’s ridiculously brief presidency.
Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace and Home
The log cabin is the home that most people associate with Abraham Lincoln, and there is one near Knob Creek, Kentucky, where he was born. But it’s a ruse, and it’s a little unnerving. Visiting the Lincoln House is the best way to learn about our 16th president. The Illinois mansion, which Lincoln purchased in 1844, was the only one he ever owned. He was elected to Congress and then to the White House as a result of it.
The home itself boasts a remarkable number of original objects and furniture. The tours are a tad hokey, but the tour of Lincoln’s life isn’t restricted to his house; the historic site encompasses the entire four blocks surrounding it. The homes have been restored to their 19th-century appearance, and Lincoln’s law offices, the Old State Capitol, where he served as a State Legislator, the Lincoln Depot, where he left the city for his 1861 Inauguration, and the Lincoln Tomb, where the famous president was buried after his assassination, are all within walking distance.
Local tip: Lincoln’s son bequeathed the home to the state of Illinois on the condition that it would always be free and available to the public, but parking is still $2.
Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill
Teddy Roosevelt’s Long Island estate, Sagamore Hill, is reopening this year following a major refurbishment after being shuttered for several years, making 2018 the ideal year to pay a visit to our 26th president’s old home.
Sagamore is the Algonquin term meaning chieftain, the leader of the tribe, and if you didn’t know anything about Teddy Roosevelt previously, the name should give you some notion of his personality. Sagamore is located near Oyster Bay on the north coast of Long Island. Roosevelt came here so regularly during his presidency that it became known as the “Summer White House.” The mansion is undoubtedly worth seeing — he has a gunroom and a gaming room where his hunting victories are exhibited (since one room was evidently insufficient) — but the true draw is the nearby nature trails. After your tour, go for a stroll or have a picnic on the beach. There’s no better way to celebrate the president who established the National Parks Service than to toss your trash away, or the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt will track you down and put you in his gaming room.
Local tip: Other than a vending machine, there is no food on the grounds, so bring a sandwich.
John F. Kennedy’s estate, Kennedy Compound
In American history, the Kennedy property has nearly mythological legendary significance. It served as the childhood home of Jack and Bobby Kennedy, the headquarters of JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign, and Ted Kennedy’s house until his death in 2009. It was bequeathed to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in 2012, with the promise that the compound will be accessible to the public in the future, so keep your fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, there are several methods to get around closed doors. You can snag a date with one of the lesser Kennedys and crash a wedding if you’re a gorgeous young debutante. If you’re a peasant like the rest of us, you may board a duck boat in Hyannis that will take you across the bay behind the mansion and teach you everything you ever wanted to know about the history of the property.
Local tip: Visit during the off-season. Cape Cod is a hugely popular summer vacation, but even though it’s less crowded in the winter, it’s a wonderful place to visit. Plus, without all the visitors, the views of the compound are fantastic.
Rancho del Cielo, Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara property, Rancho del Cielo (dubbed “the western White House” during his two years), is not available to the public, although it does allow supporters to visit what it calls “a living memorial to Reagan’s principles, beliefs, and lasting accomplishments.” To put it another way, if you want to go, you’ll have to donate. Fortunately, this mansion provides a great educational reason to visit one of America’s most gorgeous vacation spots: Santa Barbara. Drive up the coast from Los Angeles and engage in the typical political conversation about trickle-down economics (for fun, bring along someone with opposing political views), and then shake it off with a couple of glasses of wine at one of the many wonderful vineyards in the seaside town.
Local tip: Rancho del Cielo is about 10 miles from the famed Santa Barbara Winery. Convenience!
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The White House, 43 American Presidents
We couldn’t have a list of Presidential Estates without paying a visit to the Estate of Estates, the White House, which has served as the official residence of 43 US Presidents. It was built by slaves, like practically every other home on this list, which is one of the many truths you won’t discover on a White House tour because tours are self-guided. You’ll have to either read up on the residence where all of the presidents named above once strolled, ate, slept, and governed the country or use your imagination. Tours to the White House must be obtained through your Congressperson – or you may simply jump the fence, which we do not advise.
Local tip: You are allowed to bring nearly nothing into the White House (besides your phone, wallet, and keys), and there is no storage, so empty your pockets before going.