The only former president to settle in Washington, Woodrow Wilson purchased the Georgian Revival townhouse now known as Wilson House as a surprise for his second wife, the former Edith Bolling Galt. In the style of his Scottish ancestors, he marked the event by presenting her with a piece of sod from the garden and a key to the front door.
A visitor steps through that door into a polished entrance hall, beginning a tour of a house crammed with enough personal touches to make it a fascinating reflection of its former owners. Edith Wilson went out of her way to surround the former president with mementos os his White House years, when he led the country through World War I, and the postwar struggles to join the Leagues of Nations.
And mementos that are in abundance: a shell casing from the first firing by U.S. troops in World War I; a massive tapestry in the drawing room, a gift from the French people; and a signed photograph of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra of Great Britain.
The elegant red-brick house just off Embassy Row at 2340 S Street NW was designed by architect Waddy B. Wood in 1915. The Wilsons moved into it from the White House after his retirement from two terms in office in 1921. In the house there's a photo of that move, showing their belongings piled up in front of the house, straight from the moving van. Former presidents have their moving headaches, too.
The visitor climbs the carpeted stairs past a ticking grandfather clock that was a house-warming gift from his wife -- given because Wilson missed the chimes of the White House clock.
Upstairs waits the library, reflecting Wilson's presence most keenly. Formerly president of Princeton University and governor of New Jersey, Wilson was also a scholar of note, and his library contains some 8,000 volumes.
It was from this imposing room that he made his Armistice Day speech on radio in November 1923, and a microphone marks that occasion. The room also contains a graphoscope, used to watch movies at home, and his Victrola Talking Machine, on which he would listen to records played with wooden needles.
On the wall hangs a photo of the couple's 1924 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost; a group of friends gave him a car on what turned out to be his last birthday. In his previous car, a Pierce-Arrow, Wilson often rode through Rock Creek Park with his wife; but he rode in the Rollys only once, around the neighborhood. The car is now in the hands of a private owner, but the Nationl Trust for Historic Preservation, to which Mrs. Wilson willed the house on her death, is negotiating to repurchase it. If all goes well, it may yet purr gently back into the garage to complete the picture of the Wilsons' private lives. In the meantime, the Rolls will be on loan to the Wilson House starting Wednesday and will be displayed through June 30.
Happy through their sojourn was in the St Street house, it was marred by Wilson's failing health, and signs of his frailty are there. too. An early Otis elevator carried him between floors. His golf clubs, abandoned in the corner of a closet, contrast with the golfing trophy displayed in the library from happier times.
His bedroom became all too familiar to him during his last years. He spent many long days in the replica of the Lincoln bed that Mrs. Wilson had built for him after he left the White House. The books he was reading shortly before his death, in 1924, Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis, and Scott's Fair Maid of Perth, remains as he left them by his bedside.
In Edith Wilson's bedroom are the evening dresses, elaborate headgear and gold shoes of the active, handsome woman she was. On her bed, ready to be put on, lies a black velvet dress with ebony-beaded neckline. But her closet also holds a starched Red Cross hat, symbolizing the charitable and volunteer activities typical of matrons of her position.
A nursing station separates the former president's bedrom from that of his wife, as his illness must have separated them. She was to live on the house for more than 30 years after her husband's death.
In the formal dining room a cumbersome ceramic dish from Brittany is the table's centerpiece. Edith Wilson once asked the cook to place two tiny lamb chops in its midst and serve them to the couple as a joke to amuse her husband. And a silver loving cup in the dining room, dated December 18, 1915, is a further reminder of the Wilsons' midlife romance. He was 58 and she 43 when they married.
One can best picture the pair in the solarium, just off Wilson's beloved library. This small, sunny setting, edged with plants, frames a table set for breakfast for two. Beyond the plants, through the French windows, lies the simple garden. The landscaping mutes the presence of surrounding houses, and even busy Massachusetts Avenue, about a block away, seems distant. There is a feeling of peace and tranquility.