In a city as obsessed with Americana and the significance of the presidency as Washington, DC, it is surprising that it has only one museum completed dedicated to a president: the Woodrow Wilson House, where our 28th president lived the final three years of his life (1921-1924).
A lovely mansion in between Dupont Circle and the West End, the “Washington’s only presidential museum” is both a tribute to Wilson and his accomplishments as a statesman, and a well-preserved glimpse into the private life of a family post-World War I.
The Woodrow Wilson House contains a number of rooms that remain intact as they would have been at the end of Wilson’s life, even though his wife Edith Wilson lived there for another 37 years. Some of the best parts are artifacts in the house are from the early 1920s, such as a graphoscope with which the family recorded home videos, a large zinc sink that were apparently quite common in houses of the era, and a beautiful, gigantic stove that the house actually had to be built around!
Also of interest are state gifts and other items related to the Wilson presidency (in those days presidents could keep state gifts rather than giving them to the American public). The home is filled with gorgeous art and meaningful artifacts, including a Gobelins tapestry from the people of France and a shell that was the first artillery fired by Allied forces in World War I. My guide told me that 90% of the items in the house are original, and I imagine part of the reason for this serious care and attention to detail is that the house is owned and operated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The only way to tour the house is to take a guided tour, which are not scheduled but offered on an impromptu basis. Instructions for visiting are to ring a doorbell, and a guide adds you to an existing tour or takes you on one right then and there. I was very impressed by the docents/tour guides and their knowledge of President Wilson, his family, and the home. My tour guide actually asked if we could do part of the tour again because she didn’t get to go into enough detail the first time! This personal approach to museum-ing is quite a luxury, when one is used to being part of the mass of hundreds of thousands of visitors to every Smithsonian every year!
If you are looking for a unique museum experience that will likely contain much more interesting information that you planned for, look no further than the Woodrow Wilson House. And I will leave you with a piece of trivia to impress your friends and visitors: Wilson is also the only president to be buried in DC, at the National Cathedral.
To visit: 2340 S Street NW, 202-387-4062, admission ~$10. Open 10 am – 4 pm, Tuesday – Sunday. Easy walk from Dupont Circle metro or the 42 bus line.