by Angie Albright, Museum Director
On the south edge of the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville sits a modest one-bedroom house. The average passerby would not guess just how many stories this house tells. The most famous story associated with this Fayetteville house is the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton in the large front room on October 11, 1975.
Bill had returned to Arkansas after graduating from law school at Yale University in 1973. He joined the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law. That same year he ran for Congress, winning the Democratic primary and then running against popular Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt. He lost that race by a narrow margin, but considering everyone expected him to be soundly defeated, most considered it a political and personal victory for him.
Hillary Rodham met Bill Clinton while at law school at Yale University in the early 1970s. After graduating from law school, and while Bill was in Fayetteville teaching and campaigning, Hillary was in Massachusetts working for the Children’s Defense Fund and then in Washington, D. C. to work for the Watergate Committee. Bill convinced her to take the Arkansas Bar Exam, and she decided to join him in Fayetteville and also join the law faculty in 1974.
Bill had twice proposed to Hillary, and she had twice said “no” and “not now.” Then in the spring of 1975 Bill was taking Hillary to the airport at Drake Field in south Fayetteville for a visit to her friends and family. They drove down California Boulevard (now Clinton Drive) and noticed the For-Sale sign in the front yard of a sweet Tudor Revival-style home. Hillary simply noted, “Boy, that’s a pretty house.”
When Hillary returned a few weeks later, Bill picked her up at the airport and said to her, “Remember that house you said you liked?” When she said she did, he replied, “I bought that house. Now you have to marry me because I can’t live there alone.” This time she said yes. On October 11, 1975 Bill and Hillary were married in a small ceremony in that special house with only a handful of guests present, many of them people who still live in Arkansas and remember the day well.
On display at the museum is a faithful replica of Hillary’s wedding dress, which she bought at her mother’s behest at Dillard’s the night before the wedding for $53.00.
During their time at 930 California Boulevard, Hillary started the legal aid clinic at the law school and did extensive work in the local juvenile justice system. She also established the state’s first sexual assault hotline. Bill decided to run for Arkansas Attorney General in 1976. It was a short campaign and run entirely from the dining room, which was dubbed the War Room by Hillary and campaign volunteers. He won the Democratic primary decisively and was unopposed in the general election. That year he became the country’s youngest Attorney General. The Clintons moved to Little Rock in early 1977 but owned the home until 1983, often renting it to law students.
The home became a museum in 2005 and was named after the famous couple who married there, but the house has many more stories to tell about Fayetteville history as well. During the Depression, H. H. “Scotty” Taylor, a Fayetteville native who had made a fortune in the oil industry in Tulsa, returned home and built the Tudor Revival style home. In 1931 it would have been on the edge of the city and considered rather luxurious for its time. In 1932 Gilbert Swanson and his wife Roberta “Bo” Fulbright bought the house. Swanson was a part of the company that developed the original TV dinners and famous Swanson Chicken Pot Pie in the 1950s. Bo Fulbright was the sister of Senator and Arkansas native J. William Fulbright.
For nearly four decades Dr. Warren Gifford and his family occupied the home. Gifford was nationally recognized as a pioneer in animal husbandry and developed the animal science programs that the University of Arkansas is known for. About the Clintons, he famously said in 1975 that he was selling the house to “a couple of hippie law students.” Of course, those students were law faculty!
The museum currently offers tours of the house and exhibits on the political careers of the Clintons and the lives of the previous owners. Angie Albright, Director, says that new exhibit updates are on the way. “Currently our exhibits really focus on Bill Clinton’s life,” she says, “but we know that Hillary and many local people have interesting narratives about life here in the 1970s that we want to feature.” One of the fun features of the tour is the kitchen, which is painted in the same colors that the Clintons chose: bright orange and yellow, typical for the 1970s.
The museum has also recently added more programs to its offerings. Andrea Jenkins, a 3rd grade teacher in Farmington, has developed tours and curriculum for every age group. These programs use the Arkansas curriculum frameworks and learning objectives in history, social studies, and government. Albright is excited about these new children’s programs and says, “We can now offer customized learning experiences for area school children, including home school groups, in the museum and in classrooms.”
New adult programs include the Richard B. Atkinson Speaker Series, launching in August, 2017. Atkinson attended law school with the Clintons and soon after graduation joined them on the UA law faculty where he taught until his death in 2005. Local and nationally recognized speakers will be invited to talk about Arkansas history, culture, and politics. The museum also offers special events that invite local residents to enjoy the museums and its gardens, including a block party-style tailgate on September 30, 2017. Albright says, “We want to be more than an exhibit to Northwest Arkansas. We want to be a place for community engagement and enjoyment.”
Exhibits are not limited to the house. Surrounding the home is the First Ladies Garden, established and dedicated by Bill Clinton himself in 2010. The garden includes the favorite flower of all 45 First Ladies. Master Gardeners Joyce Mendenhall and Gail Pianalto did many hours of research to identify flowers that were either associated with or clearly a favorite of each First Lady. Martha Washington and Louise Adams were partial to daffodils, while Hillary Clinton and Rosalynn Carter loved tulips and hydrangeas. Current First Lady Melanie Trump is represented by Lily of the Valley, the national flower of her native country and Martha Jefferson’s favorite flower as well.
The museum is open every day except Wednesdays. Visitors come from all over the world and the United States and are all ages. In March, the museum moved to a free admission model. Albright says the decision to stop charging admission was an effort to expand their mission and be more inclusive of the entire community. They also rent the museum for private events and weddings. Clinton House Museum is a private, nonprofit organization but is largely operated by Experience Fayetteville, the city’s convention and visitors bureau. However, says Albright, despite the generous support they receive, they do accept donations and raise funds for their programs and exhibits.
For more information about tours, rentals, or volunteering, visit the website at www.ClintonHouseMuseum.org or call 479-444-0066.