Just south of Nashville is the childhood home of President James K. Polk, our nation’s eleventh president. It should be on your list to visit as one of the best preserved presidential homes in America.
James K. Polk (pronounced like “poke”) was born in 1795 in North Carolina, but his family moved to Tennessee when he was just eight years old. He grew up near the town of Columbia then on the western frontier of America. The Polk home where the museum is now located was built in 1816 by his father, and James lived here on and off as a young adult until he married Sarah Childress and moved down the street.
Polk was a congressman, Speaker of the House, and governor before being elected president in 1844. He and Sarah didn’t have any children, and she was his communications secretary and closest confidante. She was a much more savvy political player than Polk himself who was more comfortable spending all hours at his desk hard at work rather than lobbying for votes. His presidency accomplished a lot in just four years, including the annexation of Texas and Oregon territories, the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution, and the commencing of building the Washington Monument. He didn’t run for reelection, promising to only serve one term, and he is the only president to fulfill all of their campaign promises. After the presidency, he and Sarah retired to Polk Place, their home in Nashville, but he died just three months after leaving office.
Sarah dedicated herself to ensuring President Polk’s legacy which now is entrusted to the Polk Home and Museum. Sarah’s foster daughter, Sallie, and her daughter, Saidee, formed the James K. Polk Association in 1924 and purchased this home, making it a museum in 1929. It is the only surviving residence of President Polk outside of the White House.
President James K. Polk Home and Museum is located in the quaint town of Columbia, Tennessee, just an hour south of Nashville. The town is known for its Christmas decorations, so this is the perfect time of year to visit!
The museum is located across the street from the Maury County Visitor Center. Dedicated parking can be found on the street beside the museum or at the visitor center.
Head to the home beside the Polk house to purchase your tour tickets. This was his sister’s home and now serves as the museum’s ticket center and gift shop. Guided tours are available every half hour, depending on the number of guests. Advance ticket purchases aren’t necessary.
Before your tour, you will watch a 12 minute video about James and Sarah. Your guide will then take you next door to the Polk home at your designated time. Our docent had an amazing breadth of knowledge about James, Sarah, and the entire Polk family. I learned so much on this tour!
The house tour starts in the foyer and then moves into the stately parlor. Almost all of the furnishings in the home are from the family. The furniture pieces here are exact replicas of the Polk White House furniture that Sarah had made. The White House Red Room is called that because of Sarah’s purchases.
The room has one of the most beautiful tables, a gift to the president from Tunisia.
Sarah’s portrait here is beautiful.
There are two portraits of James here – one before and one after his presidency. You can really see the toll the presidency took on his health in these portraits.
The dining room is set up with the Polk White House china and contains many items from the White House.
You’ll then go upstairs to see the bedrooms, the first one set up as James’ office. He spent many nights at the White House in this office daybed, working too much to even go to his bedroom!
The girls’ bedroom next door is where his mother lived and contains many of Sarah’s items like her chamberpot and matching toilette.
It also has her own carpet bag that she used for travel and a table that was a gift from her good friend, Dolley Madison.
This sad portrait of Sarah was painted just one year after James’ death while she was her late forties. Her grief is palpable.
The next bedroom is so pretty! The portrait in this room was painted close to Sarah’s death in 1891 at the age of 87. She died in their home in Nashville which was eventually torn down due to family disputes over the will.
As you go down the stairs, don’t miss the portrait of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, a gift from a Mexican-American War general. Since the portrait is only two-thirds of the original, the proportions are all wrong and make for an interesting portrait!
Your guided tour will end in the lovely courtyard where you can pop into the former kitchen house. The enslaved workers who would have toiled in this kitchen are acknowledged here along with several places in the guided tour.
As you go back into the gift shop, don’t miss these fun stools with James and Sarah!
The gift shop had many great items, including my friend’s book!
If you walk just one block west, you’ll see the parking lot where James and Sarah’s home once stood. The only thing left is the staircase to their walkway.
Also across the street from the museum is Preservation Park which now contains statues of James and Sarah. I visited just one day before the statues’ unveiling so they were covered!
The church across the street has a stained glass window honoring the 10th president (what Polk was called at the time since President Tyler had assumed the presidency from being vice president).
Also don’t miss the Civil War Trails placard beside the house. James’ brother, William, inherited the home in 1852 and was a staunch Unionist.
The Tennessee state legislature is voting on bringing both James and Sarah Polk’s graves back to Columbia to the Polk Home. They are currently buried on the state Capitol grounds in Nashville, but James had wanted to be buried at his home (in Nashville but it no longer exists). It would be a nice tribute to have the Polks back in Columbia where they spent so many happy years.
The President James K. Polk Home and Museum is a wonderful way to learn more about this often forgotten president and amazing first lady. And don’t miss my Booking It Through History: First Ladies focus next week all about Sarah Polk.
- Cost: $14/adult; $8/youth
- Recommended: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 1-1.5 hours
- There is a gift shop onsite
- Transportation: Columbia is a one hour drive south of Nashville. There is plenty of dedicated street parking beside the museum and at the Maury County Visitor Center across the street. Columbia also has a trolley that stops at various sites.
- Dining options: I didn’t get a chance to eat in Columbia but this article lists some great recommendations. I have eaten at the Nashville location of Puckett’s Grocery and really enjoyed the food and live music.
- Nearby hotels: There are some chain hotels, especially near the I-65 interchange. Check out the Maury County Visitor Center for more recommendations. I stayed in Nashville where there are tons of hotels (I love the historic Hermitage!).
- Nearby attractions include: Historic Athenaeum, aMuse’um Children’s Museum, and Duck River Bookstore
- Other Polk sites include: James K. Polk State Historic Site (birthplace), North Carolina
Books to Read:
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