Taft restoration preserves historic house and puts on Jane Austen fashion show to celebrate

Coinciding with this year’s bicentennial celebration of the Taft Museum of Art, a Jane Austen themed collection of exhibits will grace its galleries – a fitting choice as Austen’s novels hearken back to the same time period in which the newly-restored building was erected.

The Taft also celebrates 90 years as a museum this year. It has undergone a painstaking renovation to preserve its façade and contents for many decades to come and is the site of much fanfare this summer surrounding these impressive milestones.

The Taft website refers to the house itself as “The Taft’s oldest work of art.” The structure has a rich history, beyond just the treasures contained within. Built around 1820, the Taft Museum of Art is Cincinnati’s oldest wooden residence in its original location. It has received national historic landmark status due to the revered Duncanson murals adorning its walls, which were painted in pre-civil war days by famed African American portraiture and landscape artist Robert S. Duncanson.

Early in 2020, when an investigation revealed damage to the wooden siding and foundation, the need to act in a timely manner was critical.

“We knew the house needed to be repainted. That's what it started as,” says Deborah Emont Scott, Louise Taft Semple President/CEO of the Taft for over 12 years. “Once we looked into it, we realized this was more than just a paint job.”

“Chris Habel, our head of buildings and grounds, said if we hadn't done this project, we’d be feeling a lot cooler because we were, for all intents and purposes, heating and cooling Lytle Park,” says Scott. “The house was built in log cabin days. There’s a cistern under there. Our CFO always wondered why there was always such a draft under her desk.”

The restoration was a major undertaking. Scott attributes much of its success to Habel, who employed the methodology of probing every wall in order to get a sense of the damage before work was begun. Habel serves on the Taft’s board and is a lawyer with a background in historical restoration.

“We learned that there were all different kinds of insulation put in there, including asbestos,” says Scott. “So, every board came off the house. Every single board was analyzed for its suitability to be able to be used again. And they were planed down. The lead paint was taken off. But here we were in 2022 with 90% of the boards original, and we wound up being able to use between 60 and 70%. And wow, that's terrific!”

Other important updates included upgraded HVAC, enhanced security features, fire protection and an ADA path making the grounds accessible to anyone.  Scott and her team also invested time in improving overall visitor experience.

Of course, all this work could not be accomplished without funding, and Scott also sings the praises of Lindsey NeCamp for spearheading the Love This House campaign. The $11.25 million in funding raised (nearly all of the $12.7 million amount necessary to complete the project) would not have been available had NeCamp not secured large grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Park Service. NeCamp has been selected by the board of directors to lead the museum as chief operating officer and interim director. 

The wedding dress worn by Marianne Dashwood in the finale of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility reflects her new economic circumstances. Current exhibits at the Taft celebrating the past as well as the present include Love This House: Preserving a National Historic Landmark, which documents the restoration of the historic building, and Jane Austen: Fashion & Sensibility, which runs through September 4th. This collection showcases approximately 40 costumes and accessories worn in popular film and television productions. 

Also on display is a 7-by-13-foot map made in the mid 1700’s, shortly before the time Jane Austen began writing her classic novels. It illustrates locations from both her books and her life and represents a monumental achievement in cartography.

The Taft welcomes the community to come celebrate its 200th birthday and view all of this for free on June 26th. Everyone is welcome to attend the Bicentennial Community Celebration and enjoy a variety of performances, art-making opportunities, and tours from 11am to 4pm.

“Research is telling us that to that trying to get your 2019 attendance is going to take a couple of years,” informs Scott, who is pleased that the Taft’s renovation progress lined up well with pandemic limitations.

As she passes the torch and retires among a flurry of celebratory events, including a sold-out gala, Scott is optimistic for the Taft’s future and looks forward to the upcoming bicentennial celebration.

“It's going to be a wonderful opportunity to welcome the community back to celebrate this iconic landmark in our city. There will be all kinds of special events, so there's something for everyone,” says Scott.

Celebrate the Taft historic house’s 200th birthday by exploring the newly opened galleries at the Bicentennial Community Celebration.
When: Sunday, June 26 | 11 a.m.–4 p.m.
Event Details here

RSVP: This is a free event. No reservations required.

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Read more articles by Eliza Bobonick.

Eliza Bobonick is a Cincinnati-based writer and a mother of three. Her work has been featured in such local and regional publications as Cincinnati CityBeat and Kentucky Homes and Gardens Magazine. She is a former musician whose interests include photography and interior design.