The log cabin enshrined in a granite-and-marble neoclassical building (reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial) at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park is not Honest Abe’s honest-to-goodness log cabin. The National Park Service calls the shanty a “symbolic birth cabin.” So we drove 10 miles to Knob Creek to see the second log cabin where Lincoln lived from ages 2 to 7. Unfortunately, that cabin was torn down in 1870, and the cabin standing in its place is yet another replica (built in 1931). Undaunted, we continued on to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a farm near Gentryville, Ind., where a bronze casting of cabin-foundation logs and a fireplace marks the actual location of the third, long-gone log cabin where Lincoln lived (until 1830).
To see a house where Lincoln really lived, we drove another four hours to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln resided for 17 years and personally installed the lightning rods to calm his wife’s fear of lightning. In 1860, in the parlor of that well-appointed double-two-story house, a Republican committee informed Lincoln of his nomination as the party’s presidential candidate. The Great Emancipator conducted his presidential campaign from that handsome house — a far cry from the three log cabins that no longer exist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Our third president transformed the original eight-room house built on the vast 652-acre Virginia plantation he inherited from his father and turned it into a 21-room hilltop mansion in the neoclassical style he had admired in France while serving as the U.S. minister. On the veranda, the author of the Declaration of Independence used a telescope to gaze down into the valley to view the University of Virginia, which he founded and designed. Inside his home, Jefferson devised dumbwaiters, an ingenious mechanical duplicate-writing machine, disappearing (or hideaway) beds, hidden staircases that led to secret bedrooms and a ballroom, and three house privies, which he called “air closets” because air shafts allowed fresh air to waft away the scent of the chamber pots.
Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt
Hyde Park, New York
When I stepped inside Springwood — the family estate on the Hudson River where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, spent his youth, raised his children and met with Winston Churchill to discuss development of the atomic bomb — I didn’t expect to find a hallway filled with Roosevelt’s boyhood collection of taxidermic birds. Like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Roosevelt stuffed and mounted birds, and his house also attests to his relationship with his domineering mother.
In 1905, when FDR married his distant cousin, Eleanor, his widowed mother, Sara, invited the couple to live with her at Springwood. A door connects Sara Roosevelt’s bedroom to her son’s bedroom (left untouched since his death in March 1945), and Sara placed a large, foreboding portrait of herself on an easel next to Franklin’s desk in his study. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried side-by-side in Sara Roosevelt’s rose garden, while Sara is buried two miles away in the graveyard of a local church.