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NIXON LIBRARY : THE BIRTHPLACE : Little White House Deemed Library Heartbeat

July 17, 1990|JIM CARLTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

YORBA LINDA — When Richard M. Nixon steps into his birthplace during opening ceremonies for his presidential library, it will be as if he had never left home.

There, in its original position against a living room wall, will be the piano Nixon practiced on as a boy. In the kitchen will be the same highchair in which he and his brothers once sat to eat. And in the bedroom of his parents, Frank and Hannah Nixon, will be the very bed upon which Nixon was born 77 years ago.

The wood-frame farmhouse built by Nixon's father in 1912 has been restored as a nearly identical replica of the home in which the former President spent the first nine years of his life before the family moved to Whittier. Even the same pepper and palm trees still shade the simple house.

"It is the Nixon family and does reflect the family and what it possessed," said Ken Raymond, a partner in the San Francisco firm that restored the former President's birthplace.

Dwarfed by the sleek new presidential library next door, the little white house is nevertheless considered a prominent feature of the $21-million Richard M. Nixon Library and Birthplace. According to officials of the Nixon library foundation, the library would not be in Yorba Linda were it not for the birthplace.

"We sort of view it as the heartbeat of the library," said Raymond, of the historical restoration firm of Brown, Raymond, Boulton & Szabo. "It is where he was born. The house is a singular expression of the President's roots."

The house shows the humble beginnings from which Nixon ascended to the presidency. The family lived in poverty under the crushing weight of medical expenses for two of Nixon's seriously ill brothers, said Stephen Ambrose, a University of New Orleans historian who has authored two Nixon biographies. One of Nixon's five brothers died in childhood, Ambrose added.

"He's our last log cabin President," Ambrose said.

Spartan by today's standards, the 900-square-foot house does not contain a bathtub and is so compact that almost the entire ground floor can be viewed from the living room. Upstairs is the cramped attic loft where Nixon slept with his brothers.

As basic as the house is, restoring the home to its original condition was no easy feat. The project, which took more than 20 years to complete and cost about $450,000, involved everyone from restoration experts to a network of Nixon family members who gathered heirlooms to re-create the rooms the Nixon boys played in.

Efforts to salvage the old house first began in 1968, when Nixon won the Republican presidential nomination and civic leaders in his hometown of Yorba Linda recognized the historical importance of the home. By that time, it had been occupied by a series of people, many of them custodians for the Richard Nixon Elementary School that formerly occupied the library site.

Roland E. Bigonger, a Yorba Linda city councilman and local lawyer, joined with five other civic leaders in forming the Nixon Birthplace Foundation.

Although the Yorba Linda School District owned the home, Bigonger, now 68, and still a councilman, said the district allowed the birthplace foundation to maintain and repair it. The foundation put in a standing offer to buy the home if the district ever wanted to sell it.

When Nixon was elected President in the fall of 1968, Bigonger said, the foundation erected a flagpole next to the house and installed a plaque noting the site as a presidential birthplace.

At about the same time, Nixon's sister-in-law, Clara Jane Nixon, set about gathering furniture, books and other belongings that Frank and Hannah Nixon had used to adorn their Yorba Linda home. Clara Jane Nixon, 70, widow of Nixon's late brother, Donald, said the vast majority of the items fell into her hands after Hannah Nixon's death in 1967.

"Richard had just a few things he wanted," said Clara Nixon of Irvine. "The rest of it we didn't know what to do with."

With her brother-in-law about to become the nation's 37th President, Clara Nixon said, she decided to store most of the belongings in the garage of the home she and her husband had in Newport Beach, anticipating that some day the items would be historically valuable.

She also put out the call to other family members for heirlooms. It turned out that her daughter in Yorba Linda had the family's original dinner table. One of Hannah Nixon's sisters was using the family's china cabinet. The bed on which Nixon was born--and an 1875 quilt used to cover it--were found hanging in Nixon's grandparents' barn in east Whittier.

After three years of safeguarding the family keepsakes, Clara Nixon decided to turn them over to the Nixon Birthplace Foundation, which put the items into storage in a Santa Ana warehouse.

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