100 Years and Counting: The Woodrow Wilson House Looks to the Future
Just over 100 years ago, in March 1921, following the inauguration of Warren G. Harding as the 29th president of the United States, the outgoing President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith, retired from the White House into their new home in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Today the house is known as the President Woodrow Wilson House, a National Trust Historic Site.
This was a significant move for Wilson and for Washington. Presidents customarily retired to their home state following the end of their presidencies; however, for Wilson, Washington had become his home city and was where he lived with his first wife Ellen Axson Wilson, who died during Wilson’s first term, as well as Edith Bolling Gault, whom he married just before his second term in office.
Since 1963, this four-story brick house on S Street has been a historic site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In recent years, the National Trust and the Wilson House have spent time re-considering Wilson's complicated legacy, specifically the contradictions around his work during World War I, the development of the League of Nations, his vision for world peace, and his regressive policies related to institutionalized racism, segregation, and the obstruction of civil liberties. The site discusses the duality of man, including flawed and inconsistent leadership in concert with what unites humans as citizens of the world. This work is part of the legacy of 100 years of the Wilson House.
Making A Move
Although Woodrow and Edith were both born in Virginia, they decided to make Washington, D.C., their permanent residence.
They chose the neighborhood of Kalorama, Greek for “beautiful view,” because this house, designed by architect Waddy Butler Wood, had a hand crank trunk lift. This was especially important because Wilson's stroke—which happened mid-way through his second term in 1919—had left him unable to climb stairs. Edith, who served as a steward of the president by pre-screening matters of state during his convalescence, had the trunk lift shaft converted to an Otis elevator. One hundred years later, the Otis elevator still works, accommodating guests and staff.
Remarkably, we have photos of moving day, March 4, 1921. The Wilsons’ move from the White House was much like any moving day, with moving trucks and piles of his, hers, and theirs on the front stoop. This house on S Street was the first and only house the Wilsons lived in together, other than the White House.
The Wilsons bought the house with the $50,000 from his Nobel Peace Prize, along with generous donations from 10 friends, each of whom gave them $10,000 to purchase the house. In keeping with Scottish tradition, Wilson gave Edith the key and soil from the yard of the newly-purchased $150,000 Kalorama property.
Historic Perspectives, Modern Initiatives
Edith kept the home as it was upon the president’s death and following her death in 1961, bequeathed the home and its contents—over 8,400 items—to the National Trust. In 1963, after Edith died, the Wilson House opened formally as a museum. At the time, visitors were treated to a home that was carefully preserved by Edith Wilson—essentially the first curator—who served to preserve the legacy of her husband. Today, the home is a time capsule of 1924.
However, while visitors are treated to a home that looks outwardly the same, with rooms and furnishings as they were in 1924, the conversation is now dramatically different. In recent years, the staff of the Wilson House has broadened the way we consider the narrative of Wilson in the 21st century. This includes developing programs and initiatives related to topics such as racial and social justice, equal rights, and the First Amendment—recognizing that Wilson’s legacy is complex, complicated, and consequential.
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As we mark 100 years of the Wilsons' life on S Street, here are a few different programs and projects that the Woodrow Wilson House has been working on:
Suffrage Outside the 19th Amendment at 100: This exhibition—part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s campaign for Where Women Made History—was installed at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The outdoor exhibit illustrated how women’s work outside the home, their public protests outside in the streets, alliances with activists outside the United States, and the work of Black and immigrant women kept outside the "mainstream" middle-class white women’s movement, collectively propelled the American woman’s suffrage campaign to success in 1920.
Wilson and Brandeis: Today we talk about Wilson and his consequential presidency, yet few make note of Wilson’s consequential friendship with Louis Brandeis, who was an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court—and the first Jewish member of the court, nominated by Wilson in 1916.
In April 2021, Edward F. Gerber, a member of the Wilson House Advisory Council, and Zachary Burt, Wilson House Scholar, interviewed Brandeis’ grandson Frank Gilbert and historian Professor John Milton Cooper Jr., author of Woodrow Wilson: A Biography, about this relationship. The interview examines the friendship between the two men and how their collaboration reframed federal monetary and regulatory policy.
The Wilson House Speaker Series: As many sites did during forced closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wilson House spent some time updating its programs and tours. One of the programs that was developed was a weekly virtual Speaker Series, which featured interviews with notable historians, curators, and leaders for a series of talks exploring aspects of the social movements of the early 20th century and their relevance today. These talks explored women’s suffrage, activism and protest, racial inequity, and the consequences and legacy of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.
Beyond 100 Years
As we continue to learn about and explore the fascinating events and impacts of the past 100 years, the Wilson House now looks to the future. We currently prioritize the highly relevant themes of the nation’s legacy of systemic racism and Wilson’s role in damaging racial policies; the impacts of his foreign policy, including his vision for a peaceful and collaborative international community; and the historic lessons of the pandemic of 1918.
As president, Wilson used his considerable platform to advance contemporary concepts of democracy: leading the passage of domestic policy that improved living and working conditions, supporting women’s right to vote (after some resistance), creating national parks and preserving natural resources, and developing and fighting for the concept of the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations.
But Wilson also left behind a difficult legacy by segregating a racially integrated federal government and showing the film Birth of a Nation while at the White House. These contradictions and inequities that characterized Wilson’s time in office are issues and challenges that persist today. At the Wilson House, we provide ongoing programs, tours, and opportunities for discussion and learning around these and other important themes.
Soon, we will also be launching new specialty tours of the Wilson House, such as an architecture tour highlighting Waddy Butler Wood’s signature styles; a tour that explores the fascinating lives and experiences of the people who lived and worked in the house through the lens of their private diaries, an object-focused tour that studies the ceramics collection, and a tour that reveals the compelling connections and contributions across three generations of Wilson women.
In addition, the Wilson House continues its work of guiding, mentoring, and educating scholars—both in person and virtually—through the Wilson House Volunteer Scholars Program. The program was recently accredited by the President’s Volunteer Service Award, a program that honors volunteers and the impact they make. Students from around the world engage in preservation, history, research, and finding new ways to connect this site with younger audiences.
What’s important to know about the Wilson House today is that in spite of COVID-19 and 100 years of dynamic history—or perhaps because of it—it is thriving. It may be 100 years old, but this historic site is only getting better. Community involvement helps to ensure that our tours are engaging, our programs are exciting, and our exhibitions are inspired.
Our mission of welcoming open discussions of our complex past and exploring the ideals that unite —and we’re looking forward to the next 100 years.
Elizabeth Karcher is the executive director of the President Woodrow Wilson House. This article also has contributions by Priya Chhaya, associate director of content for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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