The Hoover Houses and Community Structures
Historic Structures Report
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HOOVER COTTAGE (continued)


A. Allan Hoover Acquires the Property

1. Initial Efforts of the Family to Purchase the Cottage

In the late summer of 1930, Presidential Secretary Lawrence Richey contacted J. N. "Ding" Darling, famed cartoonist for the Des Moines Register about possible acquisition by the Hoover family of the Birthplace property. After checking into the subject, Darling on September 17 wrote Richey in regards to "matters at West Branch." He reported that he had "located the best possible man to act for me and hope to have something definite to report in the near future." [1]

This inquiry was triggered by reports that Mrs. Scellers was using the property for commercial purposes. Darling's agent was able to partially alleviate these fears. On September 26 Darling reported, Mrs. Scellers

is not doing as badly by the job as we had feared. It [the property] is kept in apple pie order; the yard is well sodded and flowers around the house make it very attractive to the eye. There are no refreshment stands either on the premises or near it, and Mrs. Sellers [sic], herself, conducts the job of showing the visiting tourists through the house with fine dignity and sympathetic affection. [2]

Moreover, Mrs. Scellers was not interested in selling the property, because the ten-cent admission charge provided her "a very nice income, and she enjoys the process." Since January 1, 1930, there had been about 6,000 registered visitors, while in 1929 the number had been about 7,500. Continuing, Darling reported, "She looks for more income during the next two years owing to the increasing interest of the coming political campaign." [3]

No offer had been made for the property, but his agent thought that $2,500 would be a fair price. But if Mrs. Scellers wanted more, the agent would be authorized to "gradually run the price up a thousand dollars." [4]

Richey replied on September 30, authorizing Darling "to raise the ante a thousand or even two thousand dollars," as he was "anxious to get this place." [5]

On October 20 Darling wrote Richey from a New York City hotel room. He reported that his West Branch agent had notified him that Mrs. Scellers had taken up the matter with her children, then living on the Pacific coast. If they were agreeable to her making her home with them, she might willingly dispose of the Birthplace. [6]

Either the agent was mistaken or Mrs. Scellers charged her mind, because on January 28, 1931, Darling notified Richey that she did not choose to sell. He then outlined the steps he had taken. First, he had employed his agent, in guise of "a prospective small town resident, to try to purchase the place for a home." But this had fallen through when Mrs. Scellers' plan to sell and move to the west coast and live with one of her children received no encouragement. She had then rejected the agent's offer "with such completeness," and her refusal to place a price on the property was so firm that Darling gave up all hope of his agent acquiring the property.

Next, he contacted his friend Edgar R. Harlan, custodian of the State Historical Museum. Harlan had long wanted to "buy the Hoover homestead as a state monument, but lacked the funds." Darling had asked Harlan "to use all the ingenious devices at his command to get the Hoover birthplace" for Richey.

If Mrs. Scellers would not come to terms, Darling wanted Harlan to get an option on the Birthplace, "giving him first opportunity [to] buy in case and when she arrives at the point where she wants to sell." This would insure that the property would not fall into "other hands and will guarantee that when any sale is made we can get the house if you still want it."

Finally, Darling called Richey's attention to "a provision in the Statutes of Iowa providing for condemnation of property for state park and monument purpose." Harlan thought that he might take advantage of this statute to acquire the Birthplace for the state. This, however, would not answer Richey's purpose, because if it were secured by condemnation, it could not be turned over to the family.

Before turning to another subject, Darling observed:

I have presumed all along that you were anxious to obtain it in order to preserve it from abuse that might result from commercial uses. It might be possible, as Harlan suggests, that you would like to have the house put under the care of the state. [7]

This letter from Darling to Richey brought to a close the initial efforts of the Hoovers to acquire the Birthplace Property. Reassured that Mrs. Scellers' commercial exploitation of the Cottage was not being carried to extremes, the Hoover family apparently determined not to push for public acquisition of the property in 1931.

2. The September 1933 Visit to West Branch

The Ex-President and his wife made their first visit to West Branch in more than five years on Thursday, September 21, 1933. Having attended Chicago's Century of Progress, the Hoovers, accompanied by Ex-Governor Arthur Hyde of Missouri and a Mr. Gipson, drove into town at 8:35 a.m. They stopped briefly at the intersection of Main and Downey to visit with old friends, "who . . ., learning of the celebrities presence, crowded around to speak to them."

From there they drove to the home of Mrs. Mollie Brown Curran, where they visited for 30 minutes. Mr. Hoover assured his listeners that he "wasn't talking politics and is supporting the administration whole-heartedly in their efforts toward recovery."

Next, Mr. and Mrs. Hoover and their party walked across Main Street to the West Branch School, where the Ex-President briefly addressed the students. He said a few words regarding his recollections of his days as a pupil, and Mrs. Hoover told the assembly of the pleasant memories associated with their August 1928 Homecoming to West Branch.

Leaving the school, the Hoover party drove west to Des Moines, where they ate lunch. They then headed south to Clinton, Missouri, where they spent the night and said goodbye to Ex-Governor Hyde, before continuing on to their home in California. [8]

3. Fred Albin Acquires the Property

The Scellers Estate remained in the hands of the heirs for more than one year following Jennie Scellers' death. Although the Birthplace Property was sold to Fred Albin on July 29, 1935, six weeks passed before it was announced on September 12 that the estate had been settled and the house and lots on south Downey Street sold. Legal formalities had been closed and a deed executed to Fred Albin, a boyhood friend of Herbert Hoover.

Workmen had been engaged by Albin to make "repairs and improvements about the lot." No drastic changes were programmed for the Cottage by the new owner. Earl Scellers, who had been living in the house since his mother's death, would continue to reside there as Albin's tenant. Since Mrs. Scellers' death, the house had been closed to the public by the estate, and few tourists had been able to view the structure's interior.

As yet, Albin was unready to reveal what his plans for the historic property were, but he was reminded by Editor Corbin that the Cottage would always be of interest for "its associations, and a source of pride to the town as the birthplace of one who achieved the highest honors his countrymen could bestow." [9]

In effecting this transaction, Albin had acted as agent for Allan Hoover, the Ex-President's youngest son. On Tuesday, October 15, 1935, Albin drove to Tipton, where, at the office of the County Clerk, he conveyed to young Hoover the property he had purchased from the Scellers Estate. It was noted in the deed of conveyance that "no consideration has passed between the parties hereto other than the $4,500 shown in the deed from the heirs of Jennie Scellers . . . to Fred Albin." [10]

B. The Restoration of the Cottage

1. Hoover Visits the Site with Architect McKay

The acquisition of the property was especially gratifying to Lou Henry Hoover, who wished to have the Cottage restored to its appearance during the years it had served as the home of Jesse and Huldah Hoover and the birthplace of her husband. No work, however, could be done on the project until Herbert Hoover could find time to visit the site with a restoration architect.

It was late spring 1937 before Hoover again visited Iowa. On Thursday morning, June 10, Fred Albin received a telephone call from Herbert Hoover in Chicago. Hoover told his friend that he would be in West Branch the next morning, and asked that "no publicity be given to his visit, as it was to be a business errand, and of short duration."

Accompanied by Arthur Hyde and Mr. and Mrs. Allan Hoover, the Ex-President drove from Chicago to Cedar Rapids on the 10th. There he said goodbye to Hyde and spent the night with Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Spangler. After an early breakfast, on the 11th, Hoover, his son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Spangler, and Bruce McKay of McKay Construction Company, motored to West Branch. Stopping at the Birthplace Cottage, they were greeted warmly by Fred Albin. [11]

Reticent as usual about his private affairs, Hoover chatted in the front yard of the Birthplace, explaining to his friends who dropped by that he was "just paying a little visit." While outlining his views to Contractor McKay and discussing his recollections of the Birthplace, Hoover admitted that "the old homestead was to be restored." But, he added, "the old place looks all right to me just the way it is."

He explained that the restoration was Mrs. Hoover's idea, but it had been held up by his failure to visit West Branch and "tell others what his boyhood home was like." Continuing, he explained, "This isn't my idea, but it would please Mrs. Hoover who is the one who wants to have the old home restored." Further than that Hoover would not discuss the restoration, stating that plans would not be completed until "Mr. McKay submitted an outline of the proposed layout."

While walking about the property, Hoover explained to McKay that the front portion of the house would have to be removed leaving the original one-story Cottage of two rooms and a long back porch. The Cottage would then be turned so that the present south wall faced east. A window would be placed in the doorway currently giving access from the Cottage to the newer section of the Scellers House. The old pump, near the south elevation of the Cottage, would be the "pivotal point" in the restoration, as it was to be inside the back porch when the project was completed. [12]

The asphalt shingles would be replaced with wooden ones, and a new chimney, similar to those found in West Branch in the 1870s, erected. A stone foundation would be position under the relocated Cottage. There would be no basement. The ceiling, flooring, and doors, dating to the Hoover years, would be retained in the restoration.

The lot on which the Cottage was to be relocated would be only half as large as the present lot, and be enclosed by a picket fence. Hoover had proposed to relocate the front part of the house on the rear of the lot, where it would be used as quarters for the caretakers. But when they studied the situation on-site, it was found that there was too little space and that proposal was scrapped. [13]

What was to be done with the bronze statue of Isis was also discussed. This bronze statue, a gift to Hoover from the children of Belgium, was to be placed at the site of their benefactor's birth. The statue was an expression of gratitude for Mr. Hoover's work in behalf of Belgium relief. [14]

Those touring the property with Mr. Hoover were impressed with his ability to recall details of his birthplace. Displaying his skill as a professional engineer, Hoover expressed "his recollections and wishes very clearly and easily to Mr. McKay, once the two found a common ground of interest in the engineering phases" of the project. Although the restoration might not begin for some time, McKay voiced the opinion that once started, it would be completed in a month. As to what would happen to the Cottage after it was restored, it was suggested that the Hoovers would probably turn it over for administration and interpretation to the Iowa Historical Society or a similar agency interested in historic preservation. [15]

Local people at the site were charmed by Allan Hoover's wife. She explained to them that this was her first visit to Iowa, and she was "delighted with the climate, the lovely trees, and the luxuriant greenness." [16] Before leaving West Branch, shortly before noon, the Hoover party called at the home of Mr. and Mrs. O. C. Yoder and visited the cemetery. From there they drove to Le Grand for a brief visit to the Pembertons, and then on to Des Moines, where they spent the night. [17]

2. Plans are Prepared and Approved

In the weeks following his June 11 meeting with Mr. Hoover, Architect Bruce McKay prepared preliminary working drawings of the restoration, which he forwarded to Mrs. Hoover on July 28. Lou Henry Hoover on August 28 replied, and, referring to Drawing No. 1, she wrote, "The house needs to be turned around so that the two windows are in front." As to the question as to whether there should be a stoop, she would defer to McKay. Members of the family, who recalled the Cottage, were divided in their views. But as Mrs. Mattie Pemberton believed there had been one, Mrs. Hoover thought a stoop desirable.

The Cottage would be "re-shingled to do away with these modern cut shingles," positioned on a "sound foundation," along "with any necessary repairs." McKay was to keep in mind that the object was to restore the Cottage to its appearance, circa 1875.

About all her husband could recall about the Cottage was the location of one window and the back porch. He remembered a window in the west elevation of the bedroom, "looking on the garden in back." Mr. Hoover was of the opinion that there were no windows in the north and south elevations. The back porch, he had told her, ran the entire length of the west elevation, and there was a small woodshed at its north end. But as McKay was on-site, Mrs. Hoover suggested that an investigation of the Cottage's fabric would document her husband's recollections. [18]

To provide for protection of the Cottage, McKay had urged that it be enclosed. Mrs. Hoover vetoed this suggestion, and recommended that a small caretakers' lodge be connected with the Cottage by "some sort of a covered way." The caretakers' quarters should be one-story, with three rooms, and a porch, to accommodate a couple. She wanted it to be of the same type architecture as the Cottage, with a low silhouette so its roof would not "rise above the skyline of the old house." If the Cottage were painted white, the lodge was to be a more subdued color, "perhaps a gray that most harmonizes with the surroundings." She wanted McKay to investigate the possibility of screening it with shrubs, vines, or trees.

Mrs. Hoover desired McKay to investigate the possibility of connecting the caretakers' quarters to the Cottage by a corridor. She believed that if this were feasible, the lines of the Cottage could be better preserved by connecting the corridor with the old woodshed rather than the kitchen door. She wished McKay to express his opinion as to the desirable length of the corridor, as she did not "have a perfect idea of the amount of ground on that side, or of how much space there is between the old house and that end" of the lot on which the caretakers' lodge was to be built. [19]

Turning to the grounds, Mrs. Hoover urged that the tract west and east of that purchased from the Scellers Estate be acquired to round out the property. Fred Albin would be authorized to handle this transaction. The statue of Isis would then be positioned "to be contemplative of the Cottage." [20]

Mrs. Hoover's letter of August 23 constituted McKay's authority to proceed with the restoration and to bill Mrs. Hoover for the expenses involved. As in the past Fred Albin would be the Hoovers' representative on-site. [21]

McKay, before proceeding with the restoration, desired to settle a few details and to complete his working drawings. Writing Mrs. Hoover, on August 30, he agreed that the corridor to the caretakers' lodge would be better through the woodshed door. It was his recommendation that the north wall of the corridor be of solid wood, with the caretakers' door in the center of the subject wall, and to the south an open porch looking toward the Isis Statue. This porch would be open during the warm months and glassed in during the winter.

He would like to know if Mrs. Hoover wanted a basement for the caretakers' lodge; a coal furnace in the basement or a heating stove on the first floor; a coal or electric cookstove; a modern bath and sink with running water in the kitchen; an electric refrigerator or ice box. As to floor plan he suggested three rooms (a sitting room, bedroom, and kitchen) and bath.

Turning to the Cottage, he wanted to know whether Mrs. Hoover desired heat other than that afforded by a stove. [22]

Mrs. Hoover, who was preparing to depart Palo Alto for the Atlantic Seaboard, notified McKay in mid-September that she would defer to his judgment on such domestic matters as were "affected by cold winters." This included the necessity for a basement, the sink and running water, and the type of heating required in both the Cottage and caretakers' lodge. She approved the proposal for a lodge with three rooms and a bath, and the covered way.

Before beginning restoration of the Cottage and construction of the caretakers' lodge, McKay was to submit his final drawings for approval. [23]

McKay had completed and forwarded his drawings to Mrs. Hoover by mid-November. (Copies of McKay's drawings are in this report.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Hoover had discussed the proposed restoration with Tad Hoover, her husband's older brother. Tad told her that the Cottage had been brown, and there had been

five rooms; a sitting-room on the east, with flowers blooming in the high windows; a bedroom adjoining, where I was born and remember sleeping in my trundle bed. Then on the west a kitchen, with which are identified fat Annie Dow the cook, and her cookies. On the south another bedroom, where there is a vivid impression of a memorable night when my father came to my room with a lamp and announced that "you have a little baby brother." This would be August 10, 1874. [24]

Tad also told his sister-in-law that there had been a front storm door, which was removed in the summer. After studying McKay's drawings, Mrs. Hoover questioned Theodore's memory of the Cottage floor plan. She did not believe it possible to partition the limited space into the four rooms and woodshed recalled by Tad. [25]

Mrs. Hoover, in the ensuing months while McKay marked time, contacted surviving members of the family and friends who recalled the Cottage before its relocation and alteration by Port Scellers. Since she had "great faith in a small child's memory" of his early surroundings, she was inclined to rely on Tad's recollections of the Cottage's floor plan, rather than trust those of "older people whose memories of that time are so much crowded." But, on June 10, 1938, she wrote McKay, the rest of the family felt that "the preponderating numbers of the other view must overweigh Theodore's lone one." The Cottage would be restored as a three-room structure, as shown in the drawings. [26]

One final change was made before restoration was commenced. It was decided to position the caretakers' lodge 40 feet, rather than 18 feet, west of the Cottage and to eliminate the covered way. Mrs. Hoover, in approving the change, suggested that the lodge's exterior be "dark stain natural wood," as this would "tend to obscure it especially if old house is painted a light color" as planned. [27]

3. The Restoration of the Cottage

Bruce McKay in the third week of July 1938 drove over to West Branch, accompanied by Robert McLeod of Cedar Rapids. McKay would be supervising architect and McLeod would be project superintendent. Several local men were employed, and McLeod turned them to tearing down the two-story frame house moved onto the lot by Port Scellers 48 years before. Extreme care was taken not to damage the Cottage fabric. Removal of the weatherboarding, revealed details of Hoover workmanship. And, "Whitewash and cloth stripped seams provided interior finish." [28]

Most of the two-story house had been demolished by the 28th, and workmen were ready to relocate the Cottage on its original site. Walter Heabel, a Cedar Rapids house mover, had visited West Branch on the 26th to make measurements and gather necessary data. [29]

When the West Branch Times went to press on August 4, Editor Corbin informed his readers, "the work of restoring the birthplace of Herbert Hoover to its original appearance is progressing rapidly." The front part added in 1890 had been torn away "revealing the original board and batten sides, showing the whitewash which was the exterior finish." [30]

While demolition of the Scellers house was in progress, Mrs. Maud Stratton took photographs, copies of four of which are in this report. A close examination of photograph (00015) shows a section where siding has been removed, exposing the board and battens. [31]

Early in August the Cottage was relocated by F. Heabel & Co. workmen, and Fred Albin on August 12 wrote Allan Hoover, enclosing three photographs his son Oliver had taken of the restoration. If there had been any doubts about the decision to use boards and battens on the exterior of the Cottage, rather than siding, they could be forgotten, because the photographs showed that under the siding there were "boards and Bats straight up and down." [32]

With work progressing satisfactorily, McKay wrote Mrs. Hoover, on the 18th, informing her that the hand split shakes on the roof and the "board and batton sides really . . . look just right for such a place." To complete the restoration, he needed authority to grade the yard, built a fence on the Downey and Penn streets sides, and place a gate where the walk enters the yard. Mrs. Hoover, having once stated that the Cottage should have some heat, McKay suggested that they place a central steam heating plant in the basement of the lodge, with underground pipes to the Cottage. Such a heating system would cost $1,500. But if the Hoovers did not want to spend this much on heating the Cottage, they could put a coal furnace in the lodge for $275. Because of the fire hazard, McKay advised against any "direct heat in the Cottage, such as a stove or furnace." [33]

Allan Hoover, with his Mother on a trip, answered McKay's letter. The architect was authorized to grade the yard, build the fence, and put a $275 heating unit in the lodge. He suggested that an electric heater be employed in the winter to keep the Cottage dry. [34]

By the time the West Branch Times went to press on August 25, McKay Construction Co. workmen had completed restoration of the Cottage. The "little house" now faced east, "with its neat windows and white walls." A crew was at work landscaping the grounds. [35] Joseph Barnett & Co. of Cedar Rapids was in West Branch on October 27 and 28 to place lightning rods on "the ridge" of the Cottage. Commenting on this development, Editor Corbin reported, "Not only do the old fashioned lightning rods look natural on top of the structure, but they will provide safety against fire and the elements, insurance which is worthwhile on such a building, which could never be replaced." [36] This completed the restoration of the Cottage.

4. The Construction of the Caretakers' Lodge

Bruce McKay, on August 6, 1938, telegraphed Mrs. Hoover recommending that the "wide dimension" of the lodge be changed from east to west to north to south, and that it be located on Lots 38 and 39. This would site the lodge about 100 feet to the rear of the Cottage. In support of his position, McKay pointed out that it would provide better observation by the caretaker, besides removing the lodge from proximity to the Cottage. [37] The Hoovers were absent on a trip to the mountains, and four days passed before Mrs. Hoover saw the telegram. When she did, she approved McKay's proposal. [38]

Having cleared this hurdle, McKay turned his crew to in late August and ground was broken. [39] The lodge was completed in mid-November, and to insure that it did not overpower the Cottage, it was long and low. The exterior was board and batten, which was stained a "soft wood brown." Windows of twelve lights each continued the exterior simplicity, which was broken by a lattice pergola over the entrance.

Completely insulated and fitted with storm windows, the caretakers' lodge was "equipped to defy wintry blasts." There was a hot air furnace in the basement, and a spacious living room (13-1/2 x 17 feet), with windows on three sides. Its interior walls, like those in the other rooms, were tinted a cheerful buff. The wood work was ivory, and the doors red oak. There was a 10 x 10-foot dinette, with windows on three sides, opening into a small hall, which connected with the basement stairs, the bedroom, the bath room, as well as opening into the kitchen. In the basement there was a laundry, fuel room, and furnace. [40]

5. The First Caretakers—Mr. and Mrs. Stratton

With restoration of the Cottage completed and construction of the lodge proceeding as scheduled, Fred Albin was bombarded with applications for the position as caretaker. To escape from the dilemma in which he found himself, Albin suggested that either the Hoovers or Harrison Spangler pick the custodians. Then if the couple were unsatisfactory, they could be more easily discharged. [41]

The Hoovers were agreeable, and in December 1938 Mr. and Mrs. Charles Stratton were employed as temporary caretakers. In June 1939 the appointment was made permanent, and Mrs. Stratton resigned her position with the West Branch Times to give full attention to the Cottage. Like all major changes in a person's life and affairs, this caused mixed feelings, both to Mrs. Stratton and Editor Corbin—"pleasure that a congenial occupation is in store, but sincere regret at severence of pleasant and satisfactory associations during many years."

Maud Stratton had gone to work for the local newspaper in the 1890s, before she was 15, as a typesetter. Following her marriage and while raising a family of four girls, she had worked intermittently in the office of the West Branch Times in various capacities. Since 1921 she had been in the front office of the newspaper three days each week, and had authored many stories, a number of which had been featured in big city dailies. [42]

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Last Updated: 28-Jul-2006