Preservation Magazine, Spring 2017

How Margaret Wilson's Harp Reaches People On A "Visceral" Level

The children of United States presidents have long fascinated the American public, and Margaret Wilson, President Woodrow Wilson’s musically talented oldest daughter, was no exception. Her 3-foot-tall Irish harp, on display at the President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., continues to delight visitors with its delicate painted motifs and multicolored strings.

“The harp definitely gets some attention because it’s so pretty,” says Sarah Andrews, manager of marketing and special events at the house, a National Trust Historic Site. “Music reaches people on a different level than history does. It’s more visceral. You can imagine Margaret sitting down and playing the harp.”

Trained in piano and voice at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute and active in the suffragette movement, Margaret Wilson served as a White House “social hostess” for 16 months after the 1914 death of her mother, Ellen Axson Wilson. She welcomed performers from all over the world, including Australia-born composer Percy Grainger, who is thought by many to have given her the maple-and-spruce harp.

Others believe the gift came from another musician, Melville Clark, whose Clark Manufacturing Co. is listed as the maker in the 1915 harp’s inscription. The instrument now sits on a detachable stand in the Wilson House’s drawing room, next to Margaret’s Steinway piano.

Margaret Wilson's Irish harp on display at the Wilson House

photo by: Scott Suchman

Painted details on the harp and its stand include Celtic knots, zoomorphic motifs, medallions, and gold clovers.

Headshot Meghan Drueding

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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