Reported in the New York Times this week, new DNA evidence has confirmed President Warren Harding fathered an out-of-wedlock daughter in 1919. Santa Barbarans who visit Franceschi Park may have wondered about one of the medallions mounted on the house, which features Nan Britton. Modern science now corroborates her story.
Nan Britton’s medallion was placed on Franceschi House during its 1927 remodel by Alden Freeman, a wealthy East Coast socialite (and socialist). Visitors can see the 14-inch-square plaster medallion below the front door on the level of the circular pavement. Walk down the path from the tables and water fountain at the parking lot. Look for a bust of Britton with “The Presidet’s Daughter” (the name of her book, slightly misspelled) above and “Nan Britton” below.
The secret romance between Harding and Britton began in 1917 while he was a senator from Ohio and continued into the White House until his death in 1923. Harding never publicly acknowledged nor saw their child, Elizabeth Ann, but supported her financially while he lived, even writing a letter of recommendation from the White House on her mother’s behalf for a job with the U.S. Customs Office.
Unfortunately Harding made no provision for his daughter in his will, and Britton — faced with the loss of child support and denial by the president’s family — wrote a frank tell-all book, The President’s Daughter. It caused a huge scandal, with detractors using words and accusations extreme even for readers accustomed to decades of “yellow journalism.”
Alden Freeman learned of Franceschi’s house on a garden tour suggested by Pearl Chase. He bought the house, named Montarioso, from the family and accumulated the surrounding properties to create a Franceschi memorial park. In 1930 he donated the house and property we now have as Franceschi Park. On the house are 85 plaster medallions commemorating notables of American history, Freeman’s ancestors, his contemporaries (like Britton), and international events and persons.
Freeman commissioned a second set of medallions for his own house in Miami Beach, built in 1931, called Casa Casuarina. Those medallions are mounted on an enclosed arcade and have been relatively protected from the elements. They are in pristine condition in what is now popularly known as the Versace Mansion. The building is part of Miami Beach’s landmarked Art Deco district and is currently the site of an upscale restaurant.
Through the Montarioso Medallions, Santa Barbara’s Franceschi House and Park have a direct historical connection with Enfield, Connecticut (the subject of another story) and Miami Beach as well as to many of the medallion subjects. Those connections are once again at risk.
The City of Santa Barbara is considering demolition of Franceschi House. The Parks & Recreation Department made that recommendation to City Council at their meeting of June 23. The outcome is another temporary reprieve while new options are gathered. The Pearl Chase Society will be organizing a community campaign to collect public ideas for the park as well as donations to rescue some form of the house. Please visit the house, look at the medallions, and help devise a new plan to save the house and improve the park.