The Bill Clinton First Home Museum will soon be a part of the National Park system, a designation that will give the modest structure on a busy street more visibility as a tourist destination.
The two-story, wood frame house on Hervey Street in Hope, Ark., was where Clinton lived from his birth in 1946 at Julia Chester Hospital until age 4. The home was occupied until it was acquired by the Clinton Birthplace Foundation during Clinton's presidency.
The dwelling, which opened as a museum in 1997, conveys a lived-in feeling and is furnished with items that date to the late 1940s when Clinton lived there. A separate visitors center with a gift shop was added later.
The South Hervey Street home served as the center of Clinton's family life for his first 10 years. After moving, Clinton spent summers there, visited on weekends and attended other family gatherings there until his grandfather, Eldridge Cassidy, died in 1956.
The one original piece of furniture from Clinton's time in the house is the living room couch. While visitors are not permitted to touch or sit on the furniture, the home has no glass partitions or roped-off areas, thus preserving the ambiance of a private home.
Museum director Martha Berryman says the people around Clinton provided him with his first notions of "social justice," a theme he carried through his political life and into his post-presidential work.
Displays include pictures of grandfather Eldridge Cassidy's store, where he served white and black customers, which was an uncommon practice in Hope in those days. Cassidy was known to extend credit during hard times, sometimes forgive debts or slip extra food into a family's order.
"This is not lost on a little child with wide eyes and big ears," Berryman said.
Berryman produced a recent find, a snapshot of Clinton as a boy standing in front of the house. The white paint on the house is peeling badly.
"He (Eldridge Cassidy) couldn't afford to paint his house, but he could afford to let families have free food," Berryman said.
Debunking the myths
Berryman says she regularly straightens out myths — including misperceptions that the family lived in poverty, that Clinton was born in the house, and that his father abandoned him. The future president's father, William Jefferson Blythe II, died in a traffic crash a few months before his son was born.
Berryman said visitors who come from around the world are moved by what they see, and have a sense they are someplace special.
"People want to stand on sacred ground," Berryman said.
Berryman said she expects the number of visitors to grow. The site will formally become part of the National Park Service in 2010, though it is already listed among other federal attractions.
A third of the museum's visitors come from outside the United States, Berryman said. Since the site opened, patrons from 159 countries have visited.
Changes in the neighborhood
In 1946, the neighborhood was dense with family homes and shade trees. South Hervey Street has since been widened to four lanes and now feeds local traffic to Interstate 30. Across the street from the home is a small used car lot, with a tobacco store next to it. Right down the road is a closed grocery store at the site of what was an ornate Methodist Church.
But other elements are the same as 60 years ago. The house still vibrates when trains pass on the tracks nearby, sometimes rattling photographs free from display panels in the adjacent visitors center. Virginia's bedroom on sunny days is still bathed in light that streams in from the five large windows. The room was Virginia's as a teenager and was hers again when she was a young bride. A bassinet is to the left of the bed, where she cared for Bill as an infant.
The museum also shows how quickly Clinton lost some of his connections to his youth and family life after he entered the White House. His mother died just after the Clintons' first Christmas in Washington. Hillary Clinton's father died in 1994 in Little Rock, where he and his wife had moved to be closer to the Clintons.
Vince Foster, a childhood playmate who lived next door and shared a yard with the Clintons on South Hervey Street, had followed Clinton to Washington to serve as deputy White House counsel. Foster committed suicide in 1993; he had suffered from depression.
Among the photos in the visitors center is one of Clinton with his uncle, Henry "Buddy" Grisham. The two were quite close, partly because they knew each other too well for the presidency to affect their relationship, Berryman said.
"Mr. Grisham never was really impressed," Berryman said, adding that Clinton would slip into Hope unannounced while in office to spend afternoons with Grisham.
Grisham died in 1997, and Clinton gave the eulogy at his funeral in Hope.
The museum also owns the home where Clinton's stepfather Roger Clinton lived with Virginia, Bill and his brother, Roger. That house isn't open for visitors, but an exhibit can be seen through the front window at 321 E. 13th St. The family moved to Hot Springs when Bill Clinton was 7 years old.
Clinton said in his autobiography, "My Life," that the South Hervey Street home "certainly is the place I associate with awakening to life" and that it "still holds deep memories."