Presidential homes shine in an uncivil political season

Story highlights

  • George Washington's estate opened to the public in 1860
  • Harrison gave "front porch" campaign speeches at his Indiana home

(CNN)In a decidedly uncivil presidential election year, the homes of President George Washington and other early leaders of a young nation offer perspective amid the shouting and name-calling.

Their estates, their great contributions and their great mistakes can be explored as the National Park Service marks the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act on October 15.
    The preservation act was passed in the wake of the post-World War II construction boom to protect places that hold the cultural heritage of the United States.
    The act's tools include the National Register of Historic Places, which is the official list of the nation's historic places worthy of preservation. It has more than 90,000 listings, but just over 2,500 National Historic Landmarks.
    "This act has provided citizens and communities with tools to protect and preserve more than 90,000 significant sites," National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told CNN. "And each site, from Jefferson's Monticello to Jefferson City's Historic District, and Jackson's Hermitage to Jackson, Wyoming's Huff Memorial Library, tells a part of the American story and reflects the ideals and personality of our country."
    These presidential homes are all National Historic Landmarks, which are designated by the secretary of the interior as having "exceptional value or quality in illustrating or interpreting the heritage of the United States." Here are a few of our favorites.

    George Washington's Mount Vernon, Virginia

    presidential places mount vernon george washington origwx bw_00022823
    The first president's father, Augustine, built a farmhouse that was later enlarged by George's brother, Lawrence, who named it Mount Vernon. George Washington, who served as president from 1789-1797, later expanded the home to its existing 21 rooms.
    Opened to the public in 1860, Mount Vernon offers tours of the mansion, slave cabins, distillery, the tombs of George and Martha Washington and their family, the farm and extensive grounds.
    The current exhibit, "Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington's Mount Vernon," documents the lives of 19 enslaved people at the estate.

    Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Virginia

    The home of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the nation's third president (1801--1809), Monticello is evidence of Thomas Jefferson's skill as one of the nation's first architects.
    Although Jefferson began building his house In 1769, on plantation land inherited from his father, Peter, Thomas Jefferson continued to expand and renovate the structure over the course of 40 years.
    The house includes a library with his desk and easy chair, part of a suite of private rooms that included his bedroom and greenhouse. There are estate tours that focus on the lives of the enslaved Hemings family and how the plantation operated with enslaved people. Although he railed against slavery, Jefferson owned over 600 slaves during his life.

    James Madison's Montpelier, Virginia

    The fourth president (1809-1817) and "Father of the Constitution," James Madison lived in his childhood home of Montpelier as an adult. (The property had been in his family since 1723.)
    The Madisons expanded it after James Madison married Dolley Payne Todd, but his parents continued to live in the original house. When Madison retired to Montpelier in 1817, the house was expanded again.
    Many of Madison's treasures are on display at the visitor center gallery, including his walking stick and Dolley Madison's engagement ring. Guests can explore Dolley Madison's effect on popular culture and take a tour of the cellars that explores the lives of the enslaved community at the estate.

    Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Tennessee

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    The son of Irish immigrants who died before he reached adulthood, the nation's seventh president (1829-1837) was known as the president of the common man.
    Jackson purchased land in 1804 on which he and his wife, Rachel, built the Hermitage while they lived in nearby log cabins. It was completed in 1819 but renovated after an 1834 fire during his presidency. After Jackson died in 1845 (his wife had died in 1829), the state of Tennessee purchased the property from his son.
    By 1889, the Ladies' Hermitage Association had been created to open the Hermitage as a museum. The rebuilt mansion features Jackson's furniture, wallpaper and other possessions. The original farmhouse and kitchen, called the "First Hermitage" and later used for slave quarters, have been restored to their appearance during slavery.

    James Buchanan's Wheatland, Pennsylvania

    James Buchanan, the fifteenth president (1857-1861).
    The 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan served only one term from 1857-1861, presiding over a country increasingly divided over slavery and headed toward civil war.
    A lifelong bachelor, Buchanan purchased Wheatland near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1848, and retreated there after his time in office. He raised his orphaned nieces and nephews there, and many of the period pieces on the first two floors belonged to him. Wheatland is now part of's 10-acre Campus of History.

    Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site, Indiana

    William Henry Harrison's (left) tenure as the nation's ninth president didn't last long. But his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, did serve a full four-year term as the 23rd president.
    The 23rd president of the United States, Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) was the grandson of the nation's ninth president, William Henry Harrison (32 days in 1841). Harrison built his home in Indianapolis after purchasing the land in 1867, and he resided at the 16-room Italianate house, outside of his presidency, for the rest of his life.
    Visitors can see 10 of the 16 rooms, restored and decorated with Harrison's possessions and other period pieces.
    Harrison planned his 1888 presidential campaign in the house library, which still has several of his bookcases and mementos, and he gave several speeches from the front porch, which inspired later "front porch" presidential campaign speeches.