The Baker estate began as a piece of property given to a young Howard Baker as a wedding present after he married Joy Dirksen, daughter of Senator Everett Dirksen of Illinois. Baker was born and grew up across the street from the current estate. He was a Congressman’s son and Senator’s son-in-law. The young Baker couple were considered “who’s who” of up-and-coming people to watch in Washington, even as they resided and entertained at their Huntsville estate. Baker always called Huntsville “the center of the universe.”
Baker built a 1950s ultra modern home, featured in several magazines for its style and decor, not to mention its residents. The basic structure has not changed. Today it would be called a mid-century modern home. The living room has high wooden beams and a terrazzo floor, both of which stretch seamlessly from the inside to the outside. The enormous sliding glass doors and windows provide a beautiful view of the back yard and forest lined cliffs.
The Baker’s guest list rivaled that of the White House. Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia, President Ronald Reagan, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, Secretaries of State and Defense, from multiple Presidential administrations, and on and on. Dozens of Senators and their wives stayed at the guest house, also referred to as the Reagan house; a beautiful nature-filled house overlooking the Cumberland Mountains and the New River feeding into the famous Big South Fork River, which is now a national park and ten miles from the Baker retreat.
Every Governor, Senator and Congressman from Tennessee has been to the Baker estate. You did not dare run for office until you came to visit with Senator Howard Baker at his home in Huntsville.
The famous New York Senator Abe Ribicoff and his wife arrived for breakfast one morning bleary eyed, not having slept a wink. They said the sounds of tree frogs, crickets, owls and the running shoals of river kept them up all night; this from a man who lived in Manhattan
When President and Nancy Reagan stayed in the guest house, the famous actress and singer Dinah Shore was nearly shot down by secret service when she arrived, unexpectedly, by helicopter in the back yard. Other guests that night included the legendary singer Chet Atkins, Governor, and now Senator Lamar Alexander to name a few.
Baker’s Fourth of July parties were infamous. It started with a family picnic in the front yard, also a landing pad for “famous people’s helichoppers” his daughter Cissy once said. The parties swelled to six hundred. The back yard connected the guest house with the main house which was ideal for large parties. The menu always included Buddy’s Barbecue.
When Baker left the Senate he went home to Huntsville, expanding the house for retirement. Today it is a 6,000 square foot home with 5 fireplaces, including one in the master bath. One whole wing constitutes the master bedroom and baths with two fireplaces. It leads into a cherry wood paneled study large enough for entertaining. There is a fireplace between the kitchen and breakfast room. Baker would open the glass doors on chilly mornings to watch the fog roll across the back yard, staying warm with the heat of the fire.
There is an airstrip about 9 miles from the estate. Senator Baker had his own plane, 425 HB, which would land at the Scott County “International” Airport. Everyone in the County laughs because Baker once flew to Canada, which, as the story goes, qualified the airstrip as an international airport. When Joy Dirksen Baker died, the airstrip was so crowded with private planes they were parking on the side of the runway. When a stranger landed for fuel he asked if the airstrip was always this crowded. The superintendent stared at the Vice President’s plane, Air Force Two, and said with a thick southern drawl, “yep.” President and Barbara Bush attended, spending time at the estate to visit with Baker.
The swimming pool is shaped like a lima bean and has a black bottom with a fern lined waterfall. Baker wanted a pool that looked like a small lake. There is a pool house with a shower, two half baths, a changing area. It has a giant backward crescent moon on the top. People from the country would recognize it immediately as the symbol for an outhouse.
The trend in modern tennis is a fast drying, green clay court with a sand-like surface called Rubico. It is the ultimate court for estates and clubs. Baker was ahead of his time building a Rubico court because it was easier on his knees. He was an avid tennis player, although not a great one. So he would fly in tennis pros to make him look good. He always won.
After his wife died. Baker married Kansas Senator Nancy Landon Kassebaum, daughter of Presidential nominee Alf Landon and the first woman ever elected to a full term in the Senate. The plan was to spend half their time at the estate in Huntsville and half their time at the farm in Kansas. It didn’t work. It was hard to pry Baker from his treasured retreat, the retreat at the center of the universe.