THE WASHINGTON area is teeming with Colonial and Civil War history. So much so, those of us living in and around Washington become makeshift tour guides when guests arrive. But for those who have done their share of monument- and museum-hopping and grappling with the ongoing dilemma of where to take Aunt Martha on her third visit to the nation's capital, rest easy.

Nestled within the Dupont-Kalorama section of Northwest Washington, the former home of President Woodrow Wilson adds its stately Georgian presence to an already architecturally rich neighborhood. Aesthetics alone give reason enough to visit, but the home also offers a personal look at the lifestyle of our 28th president, the only one to retire in the District.

With the help of 10 friends donating $10,000 each and the $50,000 winnings from his Nobel Peace Prize, Wilson purchased the S Street house in 1921 as a surprise for his second wife, Edith Bolling Wilson. He later presented her with a piece of sod and a key to the front door, a Scottish custom. Although the native Virginian spent only three short years in this home before his death, a sense of who he was lingers throughout.

In her memoirs, Edith Wilson describes their Washington home as "an unpretentious, comfortable, dignified house, fitted to the needs of a gentleman's home." As soon as visitors enter the central hall, they begin to understand her meaning. Designed by architect Waddy B. Wood in 1915, every aspect of the house is practical yet charming. The first floor served as a reception area for guests and included the office of Wilson's personal secretary, a kitchen and a billiard room. Much of the right wing was devoted to service areas.

Once invited to the living area on the second floor, guests were entertained in the drawing room, dining room, solarium or the library. The drawing room contains gifts from around the world. A French Gobelin tapestry (which used to hang in the East Room of the White House) drapes one entire wall and a framed mosaic from the Vatican highlights the opposite end of the room, along with the piano Wilson gave to one of his three daughters in 1906. Wilson would often spot well-wishers from the huge Palladian window and, on occasion, make his way downstairs to greet them.

But the library was the room most often used, and speaks warmly of the Wilsons' life together. At one time it housed 8,000 books, now shelved at the Woodrow Wilson Reading Room at the Library of Congress. One wall is devoted to photographs of Edith Wilson's ancestors (she was a direct descendant of Pocahontas). In the corner of the room sits the microphone Wilson used to deliver his last public address by radio in 1923.

The life of a former president need not remain stiff and structured, the Wilsons proved. Many hours were spent in the library enjoying movies on a projector given to them by Douglas Fairbanks.

The Wilsons were "real silent movie fans," explains Claire Murphy of the Wilson House staff. "They subscribed to Photoplay and Film Fun, and Mary Pickford and Tom Mix were favorite {stars}." Wilson even insisted on short intermissions to give him time to clean his eyeglasses.

The third-floor bedrooms also allow a glimpse at the personal possessions of the occupants. President Wilson's writing desk from his years at Princeton, and Edith Wilson's sewing machine (she was an accomplished seamstress and noted for her sense of style) are two among many. The contents do not appear to be on display, but look merely as if the couple just slipped from the room.

Mementos from Wilson's career as a statesman include the proposed banner for the never-fully realized League of Nations, his typewriter and his black silk top hat.

The Kalorama (Greek for "beautiful view") neighborhood rests on one of the highest points in the District. Stepping out onto the loggia, directly above the solarium, visitors are treated to a restful pause with both a distant view and a look at the garden below.

In 1954, Edith Wilson arranged to have ownership of the Wilson home transferred, upon her death, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in honor of her husband. Because of her gracious gift, guests leave the Woodrow Wilson House feeling they paid a visit to the man and not to a museum.

Karen Stephens Saunders last wrote for Weekend about Virginia's W&OD Trail.