Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site celebrates the culmination of renovations

Speakers and alumni of the Future Presidents of America program cut the ribbon at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site reopening. (IL photo/ Alexa Shrake)

The Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site on the Old Northside has officially unveiled its $6 million upgrades with a ribbon cutting, tours of the house and jazz music.

Thursday’s Grand Inaugural Reopening Celebration marking the Old Glory, New Vision Capital Campaign was accompanied by a sunny and clear-skied spring day.

“I should note that we chose the word ‘inaugural’ intentionally,” site President and CEO Charles Hyde said. “Yes, it has presidential connotations, but its origins suggest an installment under good omens. And what a good omen we have today: a beautiful 75-degree afternoon in Indiana, with the sun shining bright on this national historic landmark.”

The majority of the upgrades were made to the exterior of the home, with a presidential promenade and portico and commons area. In the interior, the wallpaper at the front entrance of the house was replicated to match the original pattern, and layers of paint were peeled in the butler’s room along with a hardwood floor seeing light for the first time in a century.

“We are focused on the century to come,” Hyde said, “building from the capital campaigns, newly laid foundations of history and civic education and amplifying our outreach initiatives.”

One of the civic education and outreach programs the site has is the Future Presidents of America program. For Jayna Ndiaye, that program was life altering.

“It allows children who look like me, act like me and speak like me to see that we have a place in this world,” Ndiaye said. “After constantly feeling 10 steps behind all of my peers, all the children have the privilege of being seen as laden with potential.

“When I walked through those doors, I was able to take those 10 steps forward. I had a voice,” she continued. “Finally, after the world spent centuries taking the voice away from young Black girls like me, I found it here.”

Ndiaye was a freshman in high school in 2021 when she participated in the program, which takes place for one week in the summer for 20 students ages 13-16, who all receive $400 scholarships.

“Everyone here learned my name. They learned who I was and what I enjoyed, my political views. They learned who I was before I knew myself,” Ndiaye said.

Indiana first lady Janet Holcomb spoke about the investment the campaign has made in the state. The state is listed as a $100,000-$249,999 donor.

“The new renovations will allow guests more opportunities for civil discourse and engagement. The public commons area will provide a historical sense of future hospitality, and historically accurate improvements to the residence will continue to provide an educational and engaging experience,” she said. “The culmination of this project ensures the continued preservation of one of Indiana’s most historic landmarks for decades to come. I am proud to celebrate with all of you not only the conclusion of the project, but also the important work being done here to educate students about the remarkable stories of our past.”

Indianapolis Deputy Mayor Judith Thomas spoke on the behalf of the city, thanking the many donors for the Old Glory, New Vision campaign. The city is listed as a donor in the $250,000-$499,999 category.

“This stately home on North Delaware (Street) suddenly became something,” Thomas said. “It became the home of Indiana’s first elected president. Since that time, it has filled many roles in this city: classroom, museum, voting site, naturalization site, empowerment site. So today, thanks to the donors of Old Glory, New Vision, the place is looking better than ever, absolutely beautiful. The gardens are just gorgeous — nearly 150 years after it was built to still look just as beautiful as the first day is amazing.”

Representing the Indianapolis City-County Council, Council President Vop Osili invoked Harrison’s own words.

“As the newly reopened President Harrison home shows us, the historic people, places and events of the Old Northside are much more than dusty relics,” Osili said. “Like President Harrison himself, they are part and parcel of the soul of American democracy. If we listen, we’ll hear them speaking just as powerfully to our present moment as they did to their own.”

Arthur Jordan Foundation and Lilly Endowment Inc. are among the top donors of the campaign, listed in the $500,000 and more category.

“When the words flew out of my mouth randomly, ‘Let’s raise our goal for the capital campaign to $6 million,’ I thought I had lost my mind, all of this during COVID,” Harrison Site Board of Directors Chair Brian Hewitt said.

Hewitt said it happened because of the board’s faith and belief that they could make it happen. He asked that the donations turn into annual giving for the site.

The ceremony ended with the speakers and alums of the Future Presidents of America program cutting the red, white and blue ribbon with golden scissors.

The site will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.

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