As the home of Indiana’s only president, the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site has a special place in Hoosier history and community.
The home is a museum of Harrison’s life, as well as a snapshot into the world when he was America’s leader. Countless school children come to the historic structure every year to learn about life in the late 1800s and Harrison’s leadership. Special events — from candlelight theater to Juneteenth celebrations to a ceremony welcoming new U.S. citizens — are held there every year.
But while constantly focused on the past, leaders at the presidential site also have been thinking about the years to come.
”In many ways, it represents a new beginning,” said Charlie Hyde, president and CEO of the presidential site. “As we’re coming up on our 150th anniversary next year, we’re really going to be building from this campaign’s new foundation. We’re already well-known as one of the signature field trips in Indiana, but our aspirations are greater in overall scope, scale and impact.”
The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site has unveiled more than $6 million in improvements through a campaign organizers have called Old Glory, New Vision. Completed over the course of two years, the project included extensive renovations and additions to both the exterior grounds and interior rooms of the site.
At the core is a new public commons tying together a wealth of subjects — Harrison’s presidency, all U.S. presidents, the foundational ideas the nation is built upon, and the role of immigrants to this country as they become citizens.
Organizers hope the additions further connect the presidential site to the surrounding Indianapolis community, and continue to serve people for decades to come.
“We want to be sure that as we’re welcoming tens of thousands of visitors from across the state and country and globe, that we’re representing the 23rd president well, but also representing our state well,” Hyde said.
The Old Glory, New Vision campaign was born as leaders at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site started thinking about ways to contextualize Harrison’s life and legacy within the larger story of the presidency.
“If you look at the larger arc of American history, there have been over 500 million citizens. Of those 500 million citizens, there have been just over just over 12,000 who have served in Congress and 116 citizens who have served on the Supreme Court. But only 45 individuals have have been President of the United States,” Hyde said. “There is something about the stories of American presidents that merits deeper understanding.”
In planning the project, they thought about their location and grounds in downtown Indianapolis. Situated on about 2.5 acres of land locked into downtown — adjacent to Interstates 65 and 70 — the area offers limited opportunities for expansion, Hyde said.
But they realized they could use the space they had to better serve people, as well as draw attention to the site.
“Trying to make sure we were investing in our grounds in a way that would be positive for central Indiana, that would embrace the 2 1/2 acres we have, and take something that was perceived as a negative and turn it into a positive,” Hyde said. “For example, there are 165,000 cars that go by here on 65 and 70. It has its challenges, but it’s an opportunity too.”
Passengers who look to the north side of the interstate will see the sparkling new Johnson-Floyd Family Presidential Commons. The gathering space includes a wood and glass portico, and serves as entry way into what is known as the Sarah Evans Barker Citizenship Plaza.
“It has a very polished presence in the heart of the city, and is welcoming to visitors, whether they are passing through town, plan to stay and learn more, or they’re neighbors from across the state who want to learn more about their country’s history,” Hyde said.
Barker, district court judge for the Southern District of Indiana, presides over naturalization ceremonies at the presidential site every July, welcoming new citizens with a festive ceremony. The plaza built in her name includes limestone viewing cases featuring the nation’s founding documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
A Book of History is also part of the plaza, featuring the names of more than 1,500 people who have been naturalized at the presidential site since 2003.
”It gives greater context to why we, as the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, feel that’s so important. Certainly, it emphasizes people’s rights, but also recognizes that we as citizens have obligations. To hold up our end of the bargain as citizens, there are certain things we’re all called to do as well,” Hyde said. “You can see that echoed in Benjamin Harrison and his service to the country.”
From the commons, people are guided along a granite and brick path known as the Stan & Sandy Hurt Presidential Promenade. The walkway allows guests to follow in the “footsteps of the founders,” passing by 3D-printed stainless steel medallions representing every U.S. president.
Other additions include a new Neighborway to enhance connectivity between Pennsylvania and Delaware streets — restoring accessibility that was lost with the construction of the interstate through downtown. New signage helps draw attention to the presidential site, while enhancements to the historic home itself were made to ensure the structure remains sturdy and stable for years to come.
Work included everything from irrigation to care for the site’s grounds to tuck-pointing the brick exterior to adding a new heating, ventilation and air condition system.
“The greatest asset we have is the historic structure itself,” Hyde said. “We’re really thinking of this as a century project.”
IF YOU GO
Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site
What: A museum and historic home of Harrison, the 23rd President of the United States.
Where: 1230 N. Delaware St., Indianapolis
Hours: Open for guided tours every two hours 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, every hour 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, every hour 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and every hour noon to 3 p.m. Sunday.
Admission: $14 adults, $13 seniors, veterans and AAA members, $9 college students and children ages 5-17; free for kids 4 and under.