The Taft family house was primarily built in two phases. The original front section of the house, facing Auburn Avenue, was built in Greek Revival style and completed in 1840 by a family named Bowen. It was approximately half the size it is today. Alphonso Taft, William Howard’s father, purchased the house with its accompanying 1.82 acres in 1851 and built an addition at the back of the house to accommodate his growing family, including his parents.
In 1877, a fire destroyed most of the second floor and the roof of the house. As part of the rebuilding of the second floor, the roof was raised to add height to the second floor rooms, an exterior cornice was added, and substantial changes were made to the interior rooms. It is for this reason that the decision was made to restore the house to reflect family life in the home between 1857 (the year William Howard Taft was born) and 1877 (the year of the fire). The furnishings seen in the home are mostly period pieces and are not all the actual Taft furnishings. However, many of the books in the Library did belong to Alphonso and his family. Letters and diary entries written by Louise Taft during her time in the home helped preservationists to return the domicile to how it appeared during William’s childhood.
From 1882 through 1885, Alphonso Taft served as minister to Austria-Hungary and to Russia. He rented out the Auburn Avenue house during that time. In 1889 Alphonso and his wife Louisa moved to San Diego due to Alphonso’s declining health. Following Alphonso’s death in 1891, the tenants of the Auburn Avenue house allowed the mourners to gather at the house for the funeral. The house remained owned by the family until it was sold in 1899.
Within five years of the house leaving the Taft family, the front veranda was removed, replaced by a one-story porch. Other modifications were the addition of a conservatory and the demolition of outbuildings, including a stable.
The William Howard Taft Memorial Association was formed on July 7, 1937, in hopes of buying the property, but went without support of the Taft family, as Robert Taft (son of William) thought it would look too opportunistic to memorialize the house his father grew up in, and thus failed in acquiring the $12,000 to buy it. In the 1940s the building was used as apartments, with the new owner once considering selling it to become a funeral parlor.
Following Robert Taft’s death in 1953, Charles “Charlie” Phelps Taft II, William’s youngest son also known as “Mr. Cincinnati”, began spearheading the movement to acquire the house. The William Howard Taft Memorial Association eventually purchased the house in 1960 for $35,000.
The house required restoration. Charlie Taft, president of the Memorial Association, solicited through local newspapers for public photos of the house that could be used in architectural studies. He hired local writer Willa Busch Beall, who committed her time to researching Taft family history, memorabilia, anecdotes, and anything else that could enhance the historic authenticity and appeal of the house.
On September 15, 1964 (William’s 107th birthday), the house was declared a National Historic Landmark.