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President Hays: First among equals

Although it is not part of the presidential library and museum system administered by the National Archives, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont, Ohio, was the forerunner of the current system.

“It was the first presidential library,” said Tom Culbertson, the center’s executive director. “FDR [Franklin D. Roosevelt] sent his people here when he was planning his library.”

Roosevelt’s library, which opened to the public in 1941, is the oldest in the National Archives system.

Hayes’ son Wade established the library and museum in 1916 as a lasting memorial to his father, who was president from 1877 to 1881. It is on the Spiegel Grove estate where President Hayes lived until his death in 1893.

“It is a combination of his home, museum and archival library and 25 acres of walking paths,” said Culbertson. “His tomb is on the property, too.”

A five-year restoration of the Victorian house where President Hayes and his wife, Lucy, lived is wrapping up this year. “We are restoring the decor on the first floor to what it looked like when Rutherford and Lucy Hayes lived here in the late 1880s and early 1890s,” said Culbertson. “Custom wallpaper, carpets and chandeliers were re-created. We are hoping Lucy and Rutherford could walk through the door and know where they were.”

A large open house ceremony to mark the renovation’s completion will be held July 14.

The two-story Ohio sandstone structure that houses the Hayes museum is filled with artifacts from Hayes’ life, from his graduation from Harvard Law School (he is the only Harvard law graduate to serve as president) through his service in the Civil War (a general, he was wounded in battle) to his presidency, which saw the end of Reconstruction.

“You see a lot of objects; we are still not high-tech,” said Culbertson. “We like people to be able to see the artifacts, not just play with push buttons. Rather than virtual, we like real.”