Man, Idea, and Legacy Intersect at the Woodrow Wilson House

It’s a destination for lovers of presidential history, U.S. history, and the ideals of its namesake, Woodrow Wilson. The Woodrow Wilson House, located next to Washington DC’s Embassy Row, is a building that welcomes visitors who arrive for all of these reasons, and many others: Poles, Czechs, Albanians, and Armenians see Wilson’s presidency as central in their national histories.

woodrow wilson portraitThe Woodrow Wilson House focuses on the president’s “Washington Years,” from 1912 to 1924, though he spent eight of those (1913–21) at another, more famous Washington residence.

Executive Director Robert Enholm, a former corporate and international attorney who worked with the United Nations—the League of Nations’ enduring successor—provided perspective on why the Woodrow Wilson House, unlike many other presidential residences, remains vibrant and relevant:

“Wilson still has policies that people feel strongly about. Most presidents of 100 years past are not people whose policies evoke strong pro–con feelings. That make this an exciting place to visit.”

Excitement comes in many forms, from the ability to stroll through the home that Wilson lived in after his presidency, to the in-home site of the first nationwide radio broadcast (1923), to the dozens of gifts given to Wilson during his tour of Europe, the first by a sitting U.S. president.

These artifacts, of which there are more than 8,000, are tactile talking points for wider historical understanding. For example, the first shell fired by the United States in World War I, given to Wilson by General John J. Pershing, was also the first shell the United States ever fired in Europe.

The event marks the entrance of the United States into world affairs, with subsequent years observing a public yaw between isolationism and world policeman. “Many timbers laid for the modern world—the way we think of Europe and America’s role in the world—really came into place at that time,” explained Enholm.

armistice day 1923 at woodrow wilson houseThe museum also grapples with challenging aspects of Wilson’s biography and U.S. history, including Wilson’s views on race, which in 2015 led students to protest his legacy at Princeton, where Wilson served as president for eight years.

“Looking at the nation 100 years ago and how we defined and treated ‘others’ is an eye-opening investigation into the way we embrace or do not embrace outsiders,” Enholm noted. Wilson’s legacy in race relations contrasts with his advocacy for female suffrage, ratified as the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution during Wilson’s tenure in August 1920.

The home’s history does not end with Wilson’s death in 1924. His wife Edith, who sat in the Congressional gallery to watch presidents advocate for U.S. involvement in World War I and World War II, continued to live in the house until her death in 1961. By that time, the roster of visitors to the house included Jaqueline Kennedy and dozens of other dignitaries.

woodrow wilson house gardenThe Woodrow Wilson House is one of several historical residences associated with the president. Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, had an itinerant early life. Born in Stanton, Virginia, he moved to Augusta, Georgia, as a child, then went Columbia, South Carolina, before collegiate studies at Davidson College in North Carolina and the College of New Jersey (later named Princeton).

Yet the Woodrow Wilson House, if not the sole proprietor of Wilson’s biography, is the culmination of it. “It is the intellectual, political, and international connected to the personal,” explained Enholm. “What we have achieved, left undone—the perspective Wilson left on the world as president.”

In addition to daily tours on Wednesday–Sunday (Friday–Sunday in January and February), the Woodrow Wilson House opens its doors for special events, such as the Annual Garden Party on May 11, which offers attendees the opportunity to meander gardens designed by the home’s original architect and participate in period-focused festivities, like the Spring Hat Contest.