Arts Feature

Renovated Wilson Home Serves as Window into Reconstruction Era

Presidential Home Reopens to Public on Saturday

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Interior of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home | courtesy photo

What: Opening Day of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home with tours, food trucks, music, crafts and more
When: Saturday, Feb. 15 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Where: 1705 Hampton St.
How much: Tours are $8 for adults, $5 for youth; festival admission is free
More info:

In late 2005, the Woodrow Wilson home at 1705 Hampton St. was in a top-to-bottom state of disrepair.

Shingles came off the roof. Plaster fell from the ceiling. Windows rattled in their frames. The wooden portion of the foundation was rotten.

There had been Band-Aid repairs ever since preservationists spared the home from destruction in 1928 and turned it into a museum.

“During all that time, you never had a museum-quality or comprehensive rehabilitation of the site,” says John Sherrer, cultural resources director at Historic Columbia. “It was piecemeal, as funds allowed. In many respects, you had deferred maintenance when something came up.”

The house needed more than cosmetic surgery.

“We wanted to be sure that the building was rehabilitated to the standards of the Department of the Interior,” says Historic Columbia Executive Director Robin Waites.

Over the next eight years, the entire site was assessed, overhauled and restored to its 1870s appearance. Archeologists excavated parts of the grounds; construction crews repaired the home’s crumbling infrastructure; researchers looked at molding profiles and analyzed paint samples. Students of University of South Carolina history professor Thomas Brown pored through digitized 19th-century Columbia newspapers. Scholars consulted Ray Stannard Baker’s exhaustive eight-volume Wilson biography for details on the 28th president’s boyhood.

“After the building was stabilized,” Waites says, “we had the funding in place to really look at what the interpretive plan of the site would be.”

That’s when the idea took hold to turn the home into what Sherrer describes as a lens into Reconstruction life, which is key to understanding Woodrow Wilson.

The “Red Shirts” were a group led by members of the Democratic Party that used intimidation and violence to achieve political goals. Historic Columbia has a reproduction of a red shirt on display along with an original (not shown), as well as a shotgun used by a Red Shirt and an M1861 Colt Navy Revolver, a preferred weapon of the group. Shotgun courtesy of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. Revolver courtesy of the Museums of Old York.

Wilson’s family moved to Columbia from Augusta in 1870, when his father, Joseph, took a teaching position at the Columbia Theological Seminary (housed in what is now known as the Robert Mills House), where Joseph’s brother-in-law James Woodrow was already established. Joseph Wilson would also serve as the interim pastor of Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church.

With four children, Joseph and wife Jessie were intent on putting down permanent roots in Columbia. The day of living in cramped church parsonages was over; by 1871, they were secure enough — with Joseph’s income and Jessie’s inheritance — to buy and build their first home. They settled on an acre of land within walking distance of Joseph’s two jobs.

The stately two-story Hampton Street manse cost $7,000 ­— quite a sum, Brown points out, “when a builder was offering to reproduce any of the houses in the working-class Hurleyville development for $1,200.”

Although the Capital City had been famously torched in the last months of the Civil War, Columbia was on the mend. A thousand buildings had gone up since the war ended.

The family would only stay in Columbia from 1870 to 1874, but they were the formative years of 14 to 18 for the future president, Tommy Wilson. (His full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson.) Like his parents, he became religiously devout and bookish.

“All his life, he read the Bible regularly, he prayed daily and he certainly tried to have religious principles inform his policies and ideas,” says Kendrick A. Clements, USC professor emeritus and author of Woodrow Wilson: World Statesman.

He also had a particular interest in English politics, and was surely the only teenager in town with a portrait of English Prime Minister William Gladstone over his desk.

What’s with the Anglophilia? Clements suggests the idea of rational parliamentary debate might have seemed like a welcome alternative to perceived Reconstruction Era corruption.

When it came to race, however, Wilson was still a staunch son of the Confederacy. His views wouldn’t change when he got to the White House, either. He was a forward-thinking liberal at a time, Clements says, when racism was considered progressive.

“There were a great many progressives, both Northern and Southern, who were in fact racist by our standards and thought they were purifying the political system by excluding blacks,” he says.

Did growing up in Reconstruction Columbia affect the way Wilson addressed World War I — particularly in his future thoughts on how to abolish war?
“It’s hard to imagine that it didn’t,” Clements says, “but there’s no direct evidence.”

The restored home aims to bring all these questions into sharp focus, showing not only how the Reconstruction shaped Wilson but also the South.
In terms of its scope, it also marks a new turn for Historic Columbia.

“This looks very different from the rest of our museums,” says Marketing Director Carrie Phillips. “This is very much a new step for us as an institution.”

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