All the President’s Dens

The Woodrow Wilson House is comfy and charmingly cluttered

October 26, 2011

Woodrow and Edith Wilson bought their S Street NW home for just $150,000.

The emotional roller coaster of a Great American Man Museum tour goes something like this: “Wow, he was foxy in his 20s”; “He cheated on his wife? I shall never respect him again!”; “HE CHANGED THE WORLD! No, I’m not crying — it’s just allergies.”

The Woodrow Wilson House is different, because Wilson’s second wife, Edith, was quite the hoarder. The couple’s massive stockpile of decorative and practical items distracts visitors from obsessing over, say, Wilson’s civil rights record.

Backstory: Our 28th president was a Democrat who held office from 1913 to 1921, when he and Edith moved to what’s now the museum. He died three years later. Edith stayed until her death in 1961, leaving the home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in pristine condition. “All we do is dust,” the tour guide bragged.

On the Tour: The miscellany of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson’s lives tell a subtle story. A mosaic of St. Peter, gifted by Pope Benedict XV, speaks to Wilson’s influence in Europe; the disintegrating bath mat in his tub echoes the frailty and discomposure of his final years. The baseball signed by Britain’s King George V says, “I’m just one of the guys — albeit really, really powerful guys.” The kangaroo-skin coats say, “I had questionable taste in outerwear.”

Must-See: Wilson was an early adopter of numerous technologies, several of which are on view in the new “President Electric” exhibit. Dreary science museums could learn a lot from these interactive displays. Some have QR codes linking to video clips. You can put an actual record on an actual Victrola and hear actual music. Even better: Grab a greatcoat and top hat, step up to the podium, and speechify about tariffs on an old-timey radio. Then visit the 1921 Milburn Electric car in the garage outside. It gets 60 to 75 miles per charge — not bad!

Gift Shop: Books, postcards, animatronic busts of Wilson (not really).

Woodrow Wilson House, 2340 S St. NW; 202-387-4062. (Dupont Circle)
Holly J. Morris is Express' managing editor for features.
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Kristen Page-Kirby | October 26, 2011