May 21, 2024

Restoring the President Woodrow Wilson House Garden in a Changing Climate

Elizabeth Karcher, executive director of President Woodrow Wilson House in Washington D.C., likes to say that at this National Trust Historic Site, “Not much has changed, except the conversation.” Through tours and programming, the historic house museum serves as a backdrop to discuss contemporary issues. Recently, the site adopted this approach when embarking upon a reimagining and renovation of the House’s garden. After a consultation with Perfect Earth Project, the site has replanted the garden with plants native to the Mid-Atlantic area using environmentally friendly methods, all while maintaining its original formal design.

This unique approach to a garden’s redesign places the Wilson House in an excellent position to address one of the 21st century’s most pressing challenges: climate change. “I feel very strongly that it's our civic responsibility to take care of our planet,” said Karcher. “Having a native plant garden at the Wilson House is part of our civic responsibility.”

The landscape plan of the new Woodrow Wilson House Garden.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

The landscape plan for the restored Woodrow Wilson House garden.

Completed in 1916, Woodrow and Edith Wilson purchased the house from its original owner, Henry Parker Fairbanks, after Wilson left the White House in 1921. At that point, the formal garden in the back of the house already existed. It featured hedges cut into conical and round shapes, as well as lush beds of annual and perennial flowers that Fairbanks tended to himself.

Edith Wilson put significant thought into renovations to the house itself—most notably, she converted a trunk shaft into a custom-built elevator to accommodate her husband who was still uncomfortable with using stairs after his infamous 1919 stroke. That being said, she didn’t focus very much on any major garden renovations. “Edith and Woodrow Wilson were much more practical than [Fairbanks],” said Karcher. “They were not interested in creating a lush, macho garden.” They cared for what they added, and even grew crabapple trees, from which Edith had jam made.

After the house became a National Trust Historic Site and opened as a museum in 1963, the staff worked hard to maintain the original design. Yet over time, the garden became overgrown, and was often an afterthought when compared to the house itself. By 2020, Karcher had decided that a new approach was necessary.

A group of volunteers planting along the east wall at the Woodrow Wilson House garden.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

Volunteers planting the new native plants along the east wall of the Wilson House garden.

Reimagining the Outdoor Space

As was true in so many historic sites, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the value of having a thriving, usable outdoor space for visitors to enjoy. In 2020 and 2021, the Wilson House held a number of events in both the front and rear gardens and produced an outdoor exhibit commemorating the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment—but they wanted to do more. “I wanted a place at the Wilson House where children could roll around in the grass and not worry that ‘We just fertilized,’ or ‘We just put chemicals down,’” Karcher explained.

With the help of a gift from longtime National Trust supporters Marge and Joe Grills, the Wilson House set about revitalizing the garden. The first step was to clean out areas that had become overgrown and were beginning to interfere with the structural integrity of the house itself.

Then came the fun part: deciding what plants they wanted to use in their new garden design. For this part of the effort, they enlisted the expertise of Edwina von Gal, landscape designer and founder of the nonprofit Perfect Earth Project.

Perfect Earth Project was the ideal partner for such an enterprise. Founded in 2013, they advocate for nature-based land care and seek to educate and inspire individuals, organizations, and government officials to adopt landscaping and gardening practices that are toxic-free and sustainable.

Along with advising owners of personal, private gardens, they often work with public spaces, museums, and historic homes to help them rethink how they might use their land. “You’re not a blank slate on which to impose an aesthetic vision of what a landscape could be,” noted Toshi Yano, Perfect Earth Project’s executive director. “You are part of a larger environmental landscape, and it’s important to support that landscape as much as possible."

A group of volunteers helped the the Woodrow Wilson House restore its garden using native plants.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

A group of volunteers standing together in the Wilson house garden.

How Does Your Garden Grow

The Wilson House had to consider a number of factors, from practicality to aesthetics, when selecting the plants to include in the new garden design.

A Washington D.C. Master Gardener, Leslie Getzinger is very familiar with these factors. She is also a member of the Wilson House’s Advisory Council, and took a leading role in both determining the garden’s plant selection and organizing its execution. “The Master Garden program is all about citizen action,” she said. “We’re trying to leave our gardens and community spaces better than we found them.”

View of the newly planted garden at Woodrow Wilson House.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

View of the Wilson House garden following planting.

She emphasized that selecting native plants that don’t require special fertilizers or extreme interventions isn’t just altruistic, it’s also practical. “The Wilson House, like a lot of National Trust properties, has a small staff and a small budget. We wanted to use this space in a way that beautifies it, but also makes it easy to maintain and isn’t a draw on resources.”

After considering environmental factors, cost, and the look and feel of the house’s interior, the Wilson House and Perfect Earth Project settled on a palette of white flowering plants native to the region. These include hydrangeas, indigo, aster, wild ginger, and American beauty berry. Most of the plants were sourced from Colesville Nursery, which specializes in native plants.

Getzinger noted the playful contradiction in keeping the garden’s original layout, but swapping out the plants with something very different. “There are a lot of wildflowers, but it's a formal garden, right? These are informal plants, but we planted them in rows in a very formal way.”

View of the Purple Palace Coral blooming at the newly restored Woodrow Wilson House.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

View of the blooming Purple Palace Coral at the newly restored garden at Wilson House.

Over the course of two bright fall days in November 2023, 25 volunteers came together to bring the design to life. This hardworking group, which included Getzinger’s fellow Master Gardeners, as well as neighbors and Wilson House supporters, spent all day planting over 200 native perennials, shrubs, and trees. ‘It was a really great group of people,” said Getzinger. “I made chili, and I brought cookies, and we had drinks and we just dug in. Literally.”

Looking to the Future

When the garden was unveiled in late April 2024, the Wilson House held an event to introduce visitors to the garden and share the sustainable landscaping principles that this project has taught them.

But the Wilson House isn’t done planting. In fact, they see this garden overhaul as just the first phase of a much larger project. Both Karcher and Getzinger are excited to continue developing the garden, as well as taking on new gardening projects entirely. In particular, expanding upon a project Getzinger led in 2020, they hope to develop a permanent vegetable and herb garden in the style of “Victory Gardens” that were popular in World War I and World War II.

View of the Woodland Aster blooming at the newly restored Woodrow Wilson House.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

The Woodland Aster blooming at the restored Wilson House Garden.

View of the Purple Iris blooming at the newly restored Woodrow Wilson House.

photo by: Woodrow Wilson House

Two purple Iris blooming in the Wilson House Garden.

Getzinger is also excited to see sustainable gardening practices become popular at more National Trust sites and hopes that continues to be the case into the future. “It helps make these places community hubs where people can learn [about sustainability]. It helps make these places living spaces.”

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Rebecca Ortenberg is a public historian, digital storyteller, and wrangler of people and ideas. She has served as the managing editor for Lady Science, a magazine and podcast about women in the history of science, and has written for the Science History Institute's Distillations magazine. Though she has adopted Philadelphia as her home, she will always be a West Coaster at heart.

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story