Slowly, my fingers slid along the surface.
“You know, that’s made of Quincy granite,” our tour guide said, as my hand went down the edge of John Adams’s tomb.
Across the room, my travel partner — and future best man — Bryan Buckler did the same to John Quincy Adams’s.
We were standing in a crypt a few stories underneath a church in downtown Quincy, Mass. This was the last stop on a one-week journey that led us up and down the mid-Atlantic visiting any sites related to the U.S. presidents.
Or, more precisely, where they died.
It all started with a phone call I made many months before.
“Hey, why are you whispering?” Bryan asked.
“Because I shouldn’t be here,” I replied.
“Where are you?”
“I don’t know, man.”
“I’m on the eighth floor of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco.”
“I wanted to see where Warren G. Harding died.”
Bryan and I had fostered a friendship based on our parallel upbringings. He spent his childhood playing with presidential jigsaw puzzles. Instead of “Where the Wild Things Are,” my parents read me bedtime stories from a Funk & Wagnalls presidential encyclopedia. Bryan and I were not normal suburban Boston kids by any stretch. In fifth grade, I worked tirelessly on a 20-page treatise about Millard Fillmore, our esteemed 13th president — known mainly for signing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 — for a history report. I came to school dressed as Fillmore, replete with a mock fat pouch and a gray wig. I may have been the only 9-year-old who considered himself a Whig.
Throughout our days at UMass Boston, Bryan and I continued to feed into our mutual love of the presidents, whether it was visiting JFK’s birthplace or placing takeout orders under the name James K. Polk.
Naturally, when I called Bryan from the Palace Hotel, his interest was piqued, since we also share a fascination with death. Our shelves are filled with books that explore the ins and outs of presidential assassinations.
When I went to the Palace Hotel, I saw nothing that gripped my historical interests. To my naked eye, it was simply a hotel — albeit one that looked like it could double as a set for “The Great Gatsby.” But after my visit to Harding’s death site, I got to thinking: There was no obvious plaque, no mention that anything remotely important happened at the hotel on Aug. 2, 1923. (He died of a heart attack in Room 8064.) Granted, Harding was probably the most incorrigible inhabitant in the history of the Oval Office, from his extramarital dalliances (and illegitimate children) to his penchant for political scandal. But still.
Almost everything related to the U.S. presidents is considered hallowed. Their birthplaces are marked or preserved as sacred tourist havens. People collect campaign ephemera and buy countless pieces of memorabilia bearing their likenesses. Even their china patterns are kept behind glass.
So why not honor their death sites?
More than a dozen presidents died just a day’s drive away from us in Boston. The majority of death sites are on the East Coast, with just a handful in California, Texas and the Midwest.
There were lessons we wanted — or, needed — to learn from these places.
We just weren’t sure what they were yet.
It will all be worth it, I said to myself as we sat in Manhattan’s gridlocked traffic, a chorus of honking trailing behind us.
We were trying to make a 2 p.m. meeting at the Waldorf Astoria. In the weeks leading up to the trip, Bryan and I had been looking forward to this stop the most. For us, the Waldorf had been boiled down to two numbers: 31A and 700R. The former is where Herbert Hoover had his final moments. The latter, the Dwight Eisenhower room, was not as simple.
Meg Towner, the Waldorf’s social media manager, met us by the iconic clock on the hotel’s ground floor.
“Have you guys been here before?” she asked.
“Once or twice,” we coyly replied, not wanting her to know that we had tried — and failed — to get up to Hoover’s 31st-floor room months ago.
Both 31A and 700R had guests in them. Bryan and I had planned to see both rooms as they were being turned over. But they were still occupied when we got there.
“Can I take you on a tour in the meantime?” Meg asked.
Like us, Meg had graduated from college three years earlier. A Minnesota native, she went to college in North Dakota and made the not-so-subtle transition from Grand Forks to Manhattan. In her time at the Waldorf, she had accumulated an encyclopedic knowledge of every part of the hotel.
“I’m sorry, can you guys hold on?” Meg asked, pausing our tour to scroll through a message on her phone.
A minute later, she delivered the bad news.
“I actually can’t take you into Hoover’s room today. There’s a prime minister in there who was supposed to check out. But he just extended his stay.”
Though we were disappointed, the Eisenhower room was finally ready. This was the one we wanted to see the most.
According to every published report and history book we had consulted, Dwight David Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, at 12:25 p.m. at Walter Reed Army Medical Center from heart disease. It appeared as if it were a simple answer in a game of Presidential Clue, no mystery at all. But a few weeks before our trip, a wrinkle emerged.
“You want to see the room that Eisenhower died in, too, right?” Meg had asked as we worked out the details of our visit over the phone.
“Oh, no, he died at Walter Reed,” I replied. “We just want to see the Hoover room.”
But Matt Zolbe, the Waldorf’s director of sales and marketing (and resident historian) would tell me the same story a few days later. The hotel was one of multiple residences that Ike took up after the White House. The last years of his life were marred by Crohn’s disease. He suffered from limited mobility. According to both Matt and Meg — and contrary to the history books — 700R is where Eisenhower took his last breath.
We were skeptical but curious. When we stepped in, 700R was remarkably modest, yet marked with subtle regalities. A midafternoon Manhattan sun shone through the curtains, bringing the room to life. There was an unmistakable 1960s ethos, from the wallpaper down to the retro furniture, giving the appearance of a place Don Draper might sneak off to for an afternoon tryst. There was a gold presidential eagle on a wall fixture. The view from the window — a panorama of an ostensibly endless Park Avenue — appeared tailored for society’s elite. However, alterations had been made to the room in the past 50 years. For starters, I doubt Eisenhower had a flat-screen TV.
“This is really where he died?” I asked Meg as we waited for the cleaning crew to finish tidying the adjacent room of the suite.
“Yeah, it’s part of the lore here,” she responded. “There are many people who worked at the hotel and said they saw his body being taken away.”
As soon as the vacuuming stopped, Meg led us across the foyer into a small, dimly lit bedroom that was dwarfed by the adjoining bathroom. Frankly, it all felt mildly anticlimactic. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it seemed too simple to me. Too quiet.
After all, this was the man who fought to take down communism! And Korea! And corruption!
But as Bryan continued his investigation of the Eisenhower bathroom, something dawned on me.
For weeks, I hadn’t been able to figure it out. Why say someone died at one place when they died somewhere else? The Eisenhowers must have understood the importance of death, how it reflects a legacy. Preservation seemed invaluable to his camp. After all, there’s a difference between a headline saying WAR HERO PRESIDENT EISENHOWER DIES AT HOSPITAL WHERE WAR HEROES DIE and FANCY HOTEL CLAIMS YET ANOTHER PRESIDENT.
It was a theory, at least. Of course, the hotel had no proof to offer — just the story, according to Matt, of a bellman named Jimmy Eldrissi, which has since become part of the hotel’s historical lore. I followed this up with a phone call to the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., asking for input. “That’s new to me,” said the library’s deputy director, Timothy Rives, upon hearing the story, adding that there were eyewitnesses and medical records documenting Eisenhower’s death at Walter Reed. “Sometimes there’s something behind these urban myths. But I can’t imagine what it would be in this case.”
Afterward, we got in my car and drove 20 blocks south to where Chester A. Arthur, the 21st president, died. Bryan and I had planned on revisiting the James Monroe (fifth president) site in SoHo, too, but traffic killed any hopes of seeing both. We agreed to skip Nixon’s death site. Visiting a hospital where someone died in the 1990s didn’t interest us.
Shortly after his presidency, Arthur suffered a massive stroke at his home at 123 Lexington Ave. in 1886. Later, William Randolph Hearst would take up residence at that address. Nowadays, it’s a specialty food store named Kalustyan’s.
You would never know the history of 123 Lexington just by walking past it, unless you took the time to read a diminutive plaque affixed to the front of the building:
HERE ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1881 AT 2:15 A.M., CHESTER ALAN ARTHUR TOOK HIS OATH OF OFFICE AS 21ST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES UPON THE DEATH OF PRESIDENT JAMES A. GARFIELD. KILLED BY A DISGRUNTLED OFFICE SEEKER, GARFIELD’S DEATH STIRRED NATIONWIDE CIVIL SERVICE REFORM AND ON JANUARY 16, 1883, PRESIDENT ARTHUR SIGNED THE U.S. CIVIL SERVICE ACT ENDING THE SPOILS SYSTEM AND CREATING THE AMERICAN CIVIL SERVICE.
Hanging in the window was a collection of decade-old newspaper clippings that elaborated on the building’s history. But we couldn’t find any mention of Arthur’s death.
As soon as we entered, we were greeted by the smell of an amalgamation of potent spices. Bryan and I went upstairs to the deli counter hoping to speak with someone who worked there. I had many questions.A man behind the counter politely declined to be interviewed and referred me to someone downstairs. I went to her, and she pointed me toward another employee. The next person did the same. Then the next. Eventually, someone told me to come back Monday and talk to the owner. They said he was the guy who knew the history of the place.
Still, at least there was a plaque. It just wasn’t something they wanted to heavily advertise. Come buy your lentils at Kalustyan’s! Also, a president died here!
But just a mile away is a much greater oversight.
Moribund and financially burdened by years of mounting debts, James Monroe moved in with his daughter and son-in-law. He would die at their home on July 4, 1831. The first time Bryan and I visited 63-65 Prince St. in SoHo, months before this trip, we were apoplectic. We always had a deep, mutual appreciation for Monroe, negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase, namesake of the Monroe Doctrine. During our first year of college, Bryan created a Facebook group called “James Monroe Is the Most Underrated President Ever.” In our eyes, Monroe is one of the greatest Americans.
But if you’re a James Monroe fan, here’s a piece of advice: Stay away from Prince Street.
The house where Monroe spent his last days has been torn down, and a small antiques store and a trendy clothing shop stand in its stead. There is no plaque. No statue. Just overpriced jorts.
Unfortunately, as this slight to Monroe shows, history — and, specifically, death — can have many fates if there’s no one to care about it.
Rather than revisit the site, we joined the two-hour line of traffic.
It was less heartache.
How can the death sites of U.S. presidents turn into afterthoughts when nearly everything else about them becomes an invaluable artifact?
According to some of the country’s most venerable presidential scholars, the paradox is understandable.
“As a general rule, birth sites help us understand the formation of one’s character,” says Jeffrey Engel, the director of Presidential History Projects and an associate professor of presidential studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “It gives you glimpses into a president’s childhood experiences and how those experiences may have shaped their views. On the other side, death sites just capture a culminating moment in time.”
Sometimes there are factors that are beyond even a president’s control.
“Who owns a site can really impact what it ultimately turns into,” Engel says.
“You have things like Ford’s Theatre, which has been preserved and is a tourist attraction. The square where JFK died was turned into a shrine. Also, the circumstances surrounding a demise will affect the treatment of a site, too. For instance, there’s a difference in interest between someone passing on in their sleep and an assassination.”
In the eyes of Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, there’s an even simpler explanation for this disparity.
“There’s an inherent human reaction toward death,” Lichtman says. “It’s painful enough when we have to deal with it in our own families. That’s why we usually do not celebrate it.”
According to Lichtman, when it comes to a site’s eventual treatment, the context of the death is a crucial variable.
“When it comes to remembering death sites, there’s a correlation between when the president dies and how the site is remembered. You have JFK, who died while he was young and in the middle of his presidency. But then there are others who die long after they are in office and the memory of them has faded.”
Erwin Hargrove, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert on the American presidency, says the real remembrance of death will lie with the president’s tomb.
“It’s something that we do in this country, where we will use the burial and grave itself and not the site to commemorate a death,” Hargrove says.
This made sense. William Howard Taft’s home in Washington, for example — which doubled as his death site — fell into a state of obscurity, but his grave in Arlington is a towering granite structure, marked by unique craftsmanship. Granted, Taft’s grave is off the beaten path at the cemetery and not conducive to the foot traffic that JFK’s grave receives. Nor does Taft have an eternal flame.
Then again, the Taft presidency isn’t quite remembered in the same way as Kennedy’s. After leaving the White House, Taft was eventually appointed to the Supreme Court as chief justice by President Harding. He considered this an even higher honor, and noted to Harding in a letter, “I don’t remember that I ever was President.”
Bryan and I sat in the dining room of the Chester A. Arthur House, a Logan Circle bed-and-breakfast, picking at our French toast. Though the house never belonged to Arthur, it was owned by Henry C. Richardson, an undersecretary of the Treasury during Arthur’s White House tenure. The house’s co-owner and resident raconteur, Don Smith, regaled us with tales of his adventures from when he worked at National Geographic. Though he had traversed the globe many times over, he was still politely interested in our decidedly smaller exploits.
“Where are you boys off to this time?” he asked.
“We’re starting at the Wilson house today, then off to the Syrian Embassy,” Bryan replied.
In Washington’s Kalorama neighborhood, there’s a fascinating Tale of Two Presidential Deaths. The S Street home where Woodrow Wilson, the venerable president who led the United States through World War I, died was preserved and turned into a presidential museum. On the other hand, William Howard Taft’s Wyoming Avenue home would become the Syrian Embassy.
John Powell, curator of the Wilson house, agreed to give us a tour on a Monday, when the home is closed to visitors. The son of a British diplomat, Powell spent his formative years traveling the world. He was only a few years older than us, and like Bryan and me, he developed a passion for all things history.
At first sight, Wilson’s bedroom reminded me of George Washington’s, which Bryan and I had visited a few days before in Mount Vernon. It was pristine — almost virginal. The bed was roped off, replete with period pieces such as a magazine and a century-old food tray. It was an attempt to make it look the way it might have on the day Wilson died.
After he died, his widow and brother-in-law would host seances to communicate with the dearly departed commander in chief. They kept detailed written accounts — which are stored at the house.
The mission of the house was clear: If it relates to Wilson, preserve it. Every detail about his life matters.
But just a few blocks away was a different tale of presidential history.
From a distance, 2215 Wyoming Ave. looks like the kind of place a president would live: a three-story muted red-brick manse with trim and a perfectly manicured lawn. But as you approach, you realize that there’s something different.
For starters, there’s a Syrian flag hanging above the door.
Over the past month, I had sent e-mails and called the Syrian Embassy, hoping to persuade someone to give me a tour. I was slightly intimidated, mainly because the country is in disarray and stories of its violent unrest lead the news every day.
“I really don’t think this will work,” Bryan said as we walked down 23rd Street to the embassy. I was trying to call it once again, but no one answered.
This bothered me. Wilson lived in a house for three years and it becomes a museum. Taft lived in one for nine years and nobody knows about it. There’s no plaque, no sign. Just a rather unwelcoming building that is gated, with barred windows and security cameras tracking passersby.
We circled the block once more and made a few more futile phone calls.
After 15 minutes, we gave up. We had to deal with the fact that Taft’s death — at least for the time being — would remain an afterthought.
On our last day in Washington, we decided to join a group tour of the Capitol. We had each been there before. Many times, actually. But that was before we knew that John Quincy Adams died in the Speaker’s Room.
“Let me know along the way if there’s anything specific you want to see,” our guide said as he handed out our headsets.
At the first pregnant pause, I jumped in with our special request.
“Excuse me, but will this tour go through the Speaker’s Room? It’s a little morbid, but we were hoping to see where John Quincy Adams passed away.”
“Sure,” the guide cheerfully replied. “It’s right over there.”
I was expecting him to say no, to explain to us John Boehner was in there and didn’t like to be disturbed for nerdy presidential death enthusiasts. But the guide simply pointed across the corridor. We were in the old House chamber, and the room that was once for the Speaker — the one where John Quincy Adams passed away in 1848 at the age of 80 following his stroke on the House floor — was still in use.
It now happens to be called the Lindy Claiborne Boggs Congressional Women’s Reading Room — which is a fancy way of saying that his death site is now a ladies’ restroom.
In our eyes, the tenants and landlords of all presidential death sites should take a page from our last stop in the District — the infamous Ford’s Theatre.
There’s no greater celebration of death in America. In fact, without death, Ford’s Theatre might not be standing today. The story is rather well known by now. There was a play at Ford’s Theatre many years ago. President Abraham Lincoln went to see it. Assassination ensued. Theater became infamous.
Paul Tetreault, the theater’s director, met us shortly after tours closed for the evening. In a few hours, the building would reopen for its evening performance. Though his background is in theater, Paul has been fed a steady diet of Lincoln books since taking his post at Ford’s in 2004. When it came down to why Ford’s — and not the quiet and unassuming house across the street where Lincoln actually died — became this tourist mecca, Paul reasoned: “People don’t come here just because he was shot. It’s because of how great he was. It wasn’t James Buchanan who was assassinated here. What Lincoln did in 4 1/2 years, a lesser person could not do.”
He was right. Infamy leads to preservation and remembrance. It’s one of the unwritten rules of death we had learned during the trip. And not all the presidents had proved to be popular — take your Martin Van Burens and William Henry Harrisons and James Buchanans.
Still, did that mean they should be forgotten?
There was one more place to stop on the drive back to Massachusetts. Long before Snooki and the Trump Taj Mahal, the Jersey Shore was something of a surrogate Camp David. Long Branch, a small seaside town on the northern coast, was a favorite spot of James Garfield. He loved it so much he chose to recover there after he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a crazed office seeker who was unhappy that he never received an appointment from Garfield despite having no qualifications. But Garfield never recovered. As a result, it was also where he died.
A beautiful granite marker sits near where the home that he died in once stood. A friend had lent the home to the ailing Garfield during his last stages of life. The stone is simple, yet to the point. It states that he died at this site on Sept. 19, 1881. Unfortunately, it rests on a narrow residential road in an area canvassed with NO PARKING signs. Bryan and I pulled to the side of the road and hurried over to the site. A chilled saline air blew against us as we huddled around the stone and took pictures.
When we got back to Massachusetts, I thumbed through the Garfield section of Sarah Vowell’s masterful book “Assassination Vacation,” in which she made a study of the assassination sites of presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. Vowell mentions that the marker Bryan and I were looking at was the fruit of an 8-year-old boy’s campaign more than a half-century ago.
Naturally, I wanted to talk to him.
After consulting a few newspaper archives and searching the Internet, I was able to track down Bruce Frankel. He is now in his 60s, a retired lawyer living in Fort Myers, Fla. And, as I found out, Frankel is exactly like us.
“My parents were driving one day when I was a kid, and I just started reciting the presidents,” he said over the phone. “I had memorized them from an encyclopedia we had.”
And when he realized that Garfield died just a town away, he asked his parents to drive him there.
“When we got to the site, there was only a little wooden marker there. I thought there should be more. He was a president, after all.”
He began saving up in his piggy bank. Soon the local news picked up the story. A five-year campaign commenced, culminating in a grand celebration—a parade with a marching band. A local company donated the modest light gray stone, which signifies that Garfield died at this spot. And Garfield, for a day and now a lifetime, would be properly remembered.
“I ended up getting a letter from one of Garfield’s sons, who was [then] in his 80s, telling me how much he appreciated what I did,” Frankel said. “Then I realized the impact of what I did.”
Frankel’s lesson is the one that cut the deepest: It’s never too late to fix a problem, even with death.
I spent a few days thinking about what Frankel had accomplished. And then I contacted New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission about what it would take to get a marker at 63-65 Prince St.
It was about time James Monroe — President Monroe — got his due.
Andrew Clark is a writer based in the Boston area who is completing his J.D.
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