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Going Home with Clinton

In his speech to the 1992 Democratic National Convention, then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton made his birthplace a household name when he proclaimed he still believed in “a place called Hope.”

Oh the modest beginnings

After that speech, journalists and tourists began pouring into this southwest Arkansas town of about 10,000 in search of anything related to Clinton. They drove by the railroad depot that was featured prominently in a biographical video shown during the convention. And they took photographs of the then run-down two-and-a-half story home where Clinton lived with his grandparents from his birth until age four.

Today, journalists and tourists are still taking photographs of the home at 117 S. Hervey St., but the images are far more striking. Instead of depicting a deteriorating house with a sagging roof and peeling paint, photographs now show a freshly painted white wood-frame house with green trim. Arkansas and American flags fly from the front porch of the home, which is surrounded by a white picket fence. The “new” look of the 1917 American Foursquare-style home is the result of an extensive restoration designed to make the home look much as it did in the late 1940s when Clinton, then known as Billy Blythe, lived there.

Besides snapping photos, visitors are also taking tours of the home, which opened to the public on June 1, 1997. Members of a family from Phoenix, Ariz., were the first official visitors to the house that day. Since then, visitation has been brisk and steady.

“It (visitation) has been much more than we expected,” said George Frazier, executive director of the Clinton Center. “We were talking to people at some of the other birthplace homes who said you are lucky if you get 50 or 60 visitors on a good week, and we average that almost every day.”

The home is part of the Clinton Center, which also includes a reception center/museum located in a remodeled home adjacent to the Clinton home. The center is a project of the non-profit Clinton Birthplace Foundation Inc. The restoration began in 1995 from designs developed by the Cromwell Architectural firm of Little Rock.

Clinton was born on Aug. 19, 1946, at Hope’s Julia Chester Hospital, just three months after his father, William Jefferson Blythe III, was killed in a car accident. Widowed and left with a child to support, Virginia Cassidy Blythe decided to improve her career options by attending school in Shreveport and New Orleans to become a nurse-anesthetist. While she was there, the young Clinton lived at the Hervey Street house with his maternal grandparents, Edith and Eldridge Cassidy.

The nursery of a Stepford baby

On a recent tour, guide Clayton Paddie talked about those times as he led a group through the home. The tour began in the living room where Paddie showed a picture of the house as it looked prior to restoration. Then he talked about a visit Clinton’s mother made to the home prior to her death in January 1994 to provide guidance for the restoration. At this time, she was married to Dick Kelley.

“She came through and talked about what the house looked like,” Paddie said, as he led the group upstairs to view Clinton’s room, complete with a wooden baby bed.

“She didn’t know if she was going to have a boy or a girl, so they painted this room yellow because it was neutral,” Paddie said, adding that none of the furniture in the house is original to the home, but all of it dates to the late 1940s.

The next stop was Clinton’s mother’s room, which features blonde furniture, including a dresser covered with bottles of make-up, for which she had a penchant. Paddie noted that this room is the biggest one in the home. “She was the only child and it was rumored that she was a little spoiled,” he added, noting that her parents’ room was much smaller.

In the Cassidys’ room, “friendship” quilts cover two double beds. Paddie pointed out that the extra bed was for family members from the nearby town of Bodcaw who would often sleep over at the Cassidys while in Hope instead of returning home after a long day. The handmade quilts feature the names of many local people and an unusual five-braid rug made from old woolen clothing covers the hardwood floor.

After a peek into the bathroom with its old-fashioned “footed” tub, the tour returned downstairs to the living room.

“When Mrs. Kelley first walked in the door, she said there had to be a card table there,” Paddie said, pointing to the card table in the middle of the living room. “She said the gentlemen were always playing cards and dominoes.”

Oh my god it’s a visitors’ centre

Another point Kelley recalled vividly was the small table that held the telephone. It stood by the stairway, near the couch, and it was on that phone that she received the call notifying her of her husband’s death. A table and a phone similar to the originals now sit in that spot.

Across from the phone table is the fireplace, which had been removed after the Cassidys left the home in 1956. To determine how the fireplace and the living room once looked, architects used a picture of a young Clinton standing in front of the fireplace at Christmas. With this, they were able to rebuild the mantle, as well as design draperies and wallpaper for the restoration. That photograph now sits on the mantle, along with other photographs of the family.

Throughout the tour, songs such as “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” and “In the Mood” played in the background, evidence of the Cassidys’ love of music. “There was always a radio here and they listened to the WSM Grand Ole’ Opry on Saturday nights,” Paddie said.

The tour continued through the dining room and ended in the kitchen where Clinton learned to read and count from flash cards pinned to the curtains. “By age 4, he was reading newspapers,” Paddie said.

After touring the home, Paddie encouraged the group to take a self-guided tour of the exhibits in the reception center/museum. A highlight here is a replica of the Oval Office rug designed by Little Rock designer Kaki Hockersmith. Also of interest is the “From Hope to the White House” exhibit that chronicles highlights of Clinton’s life. The center’s gift shop, with posters, architectural drawings of the home, T-shirts, greeting cards, cookbooks and muscadine jelly, is also worth a visit.

In the near future, Frazier said work will begin on a rose garden dedicated to the memory of Virginia Kelley. The foundation has already received a $10,000 donation for the garden from Barbra Streisand, a close friend of Mrs. Kelley’s.

Perhaps there’s an intern gallery

Other plans call for the development of a video featuring Kelley talking about her memories of the home. This video will be shown at the reception center, Frazier said. Also, there are plans to install computer terminals at the center to connect visitors to other Clinton-related sites at Little Rock and Hot Springs.

Picnic tables and benches will also be built on the tree-shaded lawn area near the garden and the home.

“We want this to be a family-friendly place,” Frazier said, adding that eventually the foundation expects it to become a part of the National Park Service. In the meantime, the foundation is seeking more contributions to expand and operate the center.

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