Restored home of President Buchanan open to view


July 07, 1991|By Edgar J. Bracco

Most of us know Lincoln, Washington, Kennedy, Truman, the Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson. But James Buchanan?

Yes, indeed. He is not one of the best-known or most respected presidents, but he was the 15th person to hold the office, from 1857-1861, just before Abraham Lincoln. He was totally a Pennsylvanian -- born in Franklin County, graduated from Dickinson College in Carlisle, studied law in Lancaster. Then he went into politics.

Everything that has been written about him indicates a man of integrity, but perhaps one who should not have been president. The crises that led to the Civil War in 1861 were already in the making during his term in office. He could not take a stand: He saw both sides of the slavery-states' rights issue. That approach might have been fine for an ordinary citizen, but not for the president, who couldn't please everyone and shouldn't have tried.

But he knew how to live -- not ostentatiously or garishly, but well and with a certain style. His home, named Wheatland, is a gracious 2 1/2 -story mansion that sits on four acres on one of Lancaster's lovely tree-lined streets. When one sees it, both inside and out, the thought will occur: Why would a man want to leave so tranquil and beautiful a place for the bubbling stewpot of Washington?

He bought Wheatland in 1848 and lived there on and off during his years of public service. In 1861, when he left the presidency, ++ he went back to it permanently, enjoying until his death in 1868 what was then the rural peace of his estate.

After his death the mansion, like so many others then and now, was allowed to deteriorate. But then the Buchanan Foundation took over and has done a fine job of restoring it to its former handsomeness.

There is an elegant American Empire room, where he entertained both friends and casual sightseers, who were allowed in those days to barge in on an ex-president and chew the fat for hour after hour.

In the Victorian parlor there is the piano that belonged to his niece, Harriet Lane, who on occasion acted as his hostess, for Buchanan never married.

Lively young ladies in period gowns escort visitors around the mansion now. They give a running commentary and make those pre-Civil War days come alive, as well as describing the quieter ones when he retired there after the war.

This year, the 200th anniversary of Buchanan's birth -- he was born April 23, 1791 -- Wheatlands is offering several special features. On selected weekend afternoons this summer (July 13-14, July 27-28, Aug. 3-4), actors portraying Harriet Lane and other family members will give interpretive talks and lead Stephen Foster sing-alongs in the parlor.

In addition, songs by Foster will be included in a concert of 19th century popular songs that will be held on the lawn of Wheatland from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 18. (Why Foster? He was a popular composer of the 19th century, certainly, but there's another reason: Buchanan's younger brother, Edward, married Foster's sister, Eliza.)

In the rest of the house, Buchanan's study seems to be just as he left it, full of books and knickknacks; one also can see his desk and chair. His bedroom, and the bathroom with his huge tub, is pure early Victoriana. The woodwork is all original, as are the slate and marble mantels.

Outside, the mansion makes a lovely picture as seen from the front. Steps rise to a small porch with four white columns. The mansion goes back to 1828; that was a time when all components of a building were expected to be symmetrical.

Stand back on the lawn and look. Two windows and shutters on either side of the porch on the first floor; one big window above it on the second, with two on either side; then two wings, one on each side, all giving the effect of perfect balance. Wheatland may make some contemporary architects sneer, but it has a classical dignity, a sense of structural rightness.

To add to the graceful atmosphere, there are the four acres surrounding the mansion. House and grounds add up to a peaceful oasis in the middle of Lancaster; traffic roars by on the streets, but under the huge trees, beside the winding drives and flowering bushes of Wheatland, the 20th century recedes into a time of graciousness.

Wheatland is open daily from April 1 to Nov. 30 except Thanksgiving Day. The grounds are opened at 10 a.m. and the last tour begins at 4 p.m. Admission: adults $4, adults 65 and over $3.50, high school and college students $3.25, children ages 6 to 12 $1.75. Wheatland is located at 1120 Marietta Ave. (Route 23), Lancaster; telephone (717) 392-8721.


Steppingstone Museum near Havre de Grace will host its annual Old-Fashioned Games Day next Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

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