Woodrow’s Row House

In Historic Houses on June 19, 2011 at 4:59 am

Unbelievably (and as long as you don’t count that house at the end of Pennsylvania that’s, you know, white), the Woodrow Wilson house is actually the ONLY Presidential house museum in DC! Gotta get me some of that.

I’m going to get the bad stuff out of the way immediately – Woodrow Wilson house is not free. It cost me $10 to get in! $10!! Now, that’s no Newseum kind of cover charge, but this is a pretty small (relatively speaking – wait ‘til you hear about the Anderson House) historic house that’s in a non-touristy bit of town. As far as any bit of DC can be an non-touristy bit. It’s expensive.

However, it’s also pretty ace. A tour guide (ours was a lovely elderly chap named Dick) will first escort you to Wilson’s study, where you can watch a short introductory film about Wilson and get the gist of his youth and Presidency. Then, when you get to the point of him leaving office, your tour guide comes to collect you and picks up where the (slightly dated) film left off.

Wilson moved into the house after leaving the White House with the help of his friends. Despite being the former president of Princeton University as well as some country somewhere, he actually didn’t have a lot of money, so they had a whip round really. His second wife, Edith, was quite a wealthy woman but he wouldn’t use her money. Seems gentlemanly enough, I suppose…

Thing is, he also wouldn’t let her, or anyone else’s wife (second or otherwise) vote. Or work, preferably. Turns out he was a bit of a douchebag on that front. But that’s the beauty of the tour – they are honest about the bad stuff as well as the good. I am as guilty as anyone of being protective over the house I tourguide at and the people who lived there, but I appreciate an honest telling of the tale, warts and all.

The house is a beaut as well – the interior is fascinating, the kitchen especially (but being in America I am feeling somewhat starved of below-stairs history, so I would like that bit). Dick was delighted to let us play the piano that had been with the Wilsons in the White House, give us fans when we got hot (it was a road-melting day) and answer all of our inane questions. He also was kind enough to tell us about the Society of the Cincinnati HQ, the Anderson House, which is just down the road of Mass. Ave. As is the Clinton’s house, apparently, although they don’t like it when you knock on the door and ask where the Gift Shop is. I expect that one day, though, it will become the natural partner in crime to Woodrow’s gaffe.

It’s not a massive house, but it’s well formed, and a nice change to some of the more opulent houses in the city. Don’t get me wrong, this is no studio flat, but it has a more manageable feel. Overall I was impressed – there wasn’t anything hugely innovative about the interpretation, and I cringed a little when they said you could play the piano (thanks to the rash of National Trust places letting you do the same, or play billiards or read the books in the library, I’ve started to think of that as more than a little bit naff) but then again, how often can you say you played a piano that has been played in the White House? The tour was fun and informative even if it wasn’t ground-breaking.

The admission price is steep for such a small house, but as it’s an independent trust that runs it (under the guidance of the National Trust for Historic Preservation) then it’s somewhat understandable, and whilst I wouldn’t rush to revisit it because of the price, I would still recommend it as an off-the-mall thing to do. It’s nice not to be in a Smithsonian for a while…

  1. Quite ironic that Woodrow was anti-women’s suffrage since Edith was, to all intents and purposes, president after her husband’s stroke. Vice Presidents in those days were just hired to attend funerals and make the tea. It’s not like that these days of course: now Veeps attend funerals, make the tea, and rattle the collection tin at fundraisers.

    Love the vintage stuff in the pantry. It’s always the small details that end up catching my attention at places like that. Plus, you played President Wilson’s piano! Fantastic!

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