February 17, 2014

Woodrow Wilson's Boyhood Home Receives a Reconstruction All Its Own

  • By: David Weible
The project restored the original paint scheme to the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home. Credit: Historic Columbia
The project restored the original paint scheme to the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home.

Long before Woodrow Wilson entered the presidency in 1913, he was a normal teenage kid who liked baseball and watching trains. In 1871, just before his 14th birthday, his father moved the family from Augusta, Ga., to Columbia, S.C., and though they would spend only two-and-a-half years there, the place would have a strong impact on shaping the nation’s 28th president.

The family built a house on Seventh Street (a project largely overseen by Woodrow’s mother), and at the time, Wilson’s father was enjoying the apogee of his career as a scholar and minister of the Presbyterian Church. For Woodrow, then known as Tommy, this was a time to become a member of his father’s church, and blossom intellectually and academically under the guidance of his parents.

Other elements in Columbia impacted him as well, not least of which was the town’s experience with Reconstruction. Though we’ll never know the full effect that the destruction of the Civil War had on Wilson’s politics or worldview, the physical and societal renaissance of the town around him inspired in Wilson a sense of pride, leading him to claim no American city other than New York to offer more than Columbia.

Woodrow Wilson in his teenage years. Credit: Historic Columbia
Woodrow Wilson in his teenage years

“This is a property that is significant because of when the family’s here,” says John Sherrer of Historic Columbia, which acts as a site steward of the Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson. “That context of the Reconstruction period is very important. It allows Historic Columbia to not just speak to Woodrow Wilson as a teenager, but also his immediate and extended family here in Columbia, while putting it in the context of this larger national era.”

The Wilsons moved on to North Carolina in 1874, and sold the property two years later. By 1928, the boyhood home of the nation’s 28th president was threatened with demolition to make way for a new auditorium. South Carolinians, however, wouldn’t let that happen.

Invoking the spirit of local Ann Pamela Cunningham, the leader of the charge to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the mid-1800s, the community rose up to protect the house. The property was saved and opened as a public shrine to Wilson in 1933.

Throughout its time as a museum, maintenance work had been performed on the property, but in October of 2005 cracked plaster ceilings had grown more desperate, prompting Richland County, which owned the property, and site stewards, Historic Columbia, to consider more sweeping restoration work.

The Wilson House in 2005, before restoration. Credit: Historic Columbia
The Wilson House in 2005, before restoration

After deciding to close public tours, the preservation firm John Milliner and Associates conducted a comprehensive study of the site that not only assessed structural failings and flaws, but also the full context of the building’s history.

“That’s a big deal about any of our work -- [it's] not just restoring the building but also working toward rehabilitating the grounds in such a way that is sympathetic and accurate to the time period,” says Sherrer.

The initial phase of restoration began in 2008 and consisted of replacing the house’s cedar shake roof, among other things, which had deteriorated, leading to extensive water damage throughout the structure.

The project identified windows and doors that had been added after the Wilson’s sale of the home. Credit: Historic Columbia
The project identified windows and doors that had been added after the Wilson’s sale of the home.

Crews also removed a 1920s chimney addition, and identified doors and windows that had been installed after the Wilson’s departure. Scientific paint analysis was used to bring back multicolored exterior and interior paint schemes, and the structure's two-story porch was returned to its original appearance. Workers also researched the house’s original gas piping, bringing its original interior illumination back to life (though with electricity instead of gas).

Made possible in large part due to a Save America’s Treasures Grant, the $3.6 million project was completed in 2013. Now, with artifacts replaced and a reconstruction of its own, the Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home has reopened to the public, appropriately enough, on Presidents Day weekend.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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