I pretty much always enjoy touring historic houses, but president houses are my favorites. I can’t pass up a chance to combine my geeky interest in history with my (less geeky?) interest in design. I have a lifetime ambition to eventually see all of the country’s presidential houses, and I have a decent start on it. Even though there’s only been one president from Georgia (Jimmy Carter, whose boyhood home we haven’t yet made it to), we have three presidential homes to visit, thanks to FDR’s Little White House in Warm Springs and Woodrow Wilson’s boyhood home in Augusta. Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, but his father was a Presbyterian minister, so the family moved around a lot; his ten year stint in Augusta as a young boy was, according to our tour guide, the longest he ever lived in one place.
One thing that’s great about historic homes is how often they’re boxy colonials ;).
We just spent the weekend exploring Augusta for our first RV trip of the spring, so touring Wilson’s boyhood home was, of course, high on the list of things to see.
On the drive over, we did a quick Woodrow Wilson crash course with the help of a couple of podcasts. First we listened to the 5 Minute Biography about him, and then we dug a little deeper by listening to (the beginning of. It wasn’t that long of a drive) the Washington Post’s Presidential Podcast. They did one of these on each president leading up to the 2016 election; I hadn’t heard of it before, and I was delighted to find it. Now I must listen to them all. The Presidential podcast is a much more comprehensive and more nuanced look at Wilson’s legacy than the 5 Minute Biography, of course, and it addresses Wilson’s complicated legacy, which includes both the founding of the League of Nations and some decidedly less than progressive views on race and racism. This podcast pleased Ari, who is studying AP US History this year, and who informed us from the back seat, “I hear that Woodrow Wilson was a notorious racist.”
The boyhood home does not give you the complicated legacy side of things, though. Instead, it focuses on the house itself, on life in Civil War era Augusta, and on how Wilson’s childhood influenced his later life. Was Wilson’s reluctance to get involved in World War I connected to his early years immersed in the horrors of the Civil War, living right across the street from the Presbyterian Church that was used as a makeshift hospital? That’s what I love about house tours; contemplating questions like that is fine in the abstract, but it’s much more resonant when one can do it while actually looking out the same window a young Wilson did at the same church.
We started our tour in the visitors center in the house next door, at the Joseph R. Lamar Boyhood Home (Lamar was a childhood friend of Wilson’s and grew up to be a Supreme Court justice). Tours are offered Thursdays through Saturdays, on the hour between 10 and 4 and last about 45 minutes. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students K-12, and free for kids under 5. First we watched a short video about Woodrow Wilson and Augusta’s place in his biography, then headed next door to see the house.
The tour includes the first two floors of the main house, plus the garden area and the detached kitchen and servants’ quarters. Our tour guide packed in tons of information about the house and furnishings, life in wartime Augusta, and anecdotes about the young future president and his family.
While it’s always fun to see over the top fancy houses, I think I prefer houses regular old middle or working class people lived in. The Wilson house is certainly comfortable and spacious, but not so over the top that I couldn’t imagine myself living in it.
The house was privately owned until 1991, when it was bought and restored by Historic Augusta, but there are 13 original pieces of furniture in the house which had stayed in the possession of the Presbyterian church since the Wilsons lived there. The little table above is one of the pieces. I think this cabinet below is, too, but I’m not certain. It’s lovely, at any rate. (All the furniture is original to the period, even if not to the original house).
When they were doing the restoration, they had paint chip analysis done so they could replicate the original wall colors. I’m always struck (and pleased) by how much color and pattern one sees in historically accurate 18th and 19th century homes. The Victorians were not, it seems, fans of greige.
Two of the fireplaces on the first floor are slate painted to look like marble. This fascinated me, as I am the not so proud owner of my own faux marble fireplace (in the sunroom). Woodrow Wilson’s are cooler, though:
My favorite room on any house tour is the library. Especially when it’s this pretty (note again that there is no shying away from color or pattern going on here):
And I always like when there are kid rooms to look at, especially when I have my kids with me. Here’s Woodrow Wilson’s boyhood bedroom (back when he was known as Tommy):
Hands down the most charming and endearing part of our house tour was when our guide showed us the window where the young future president had started to scratch his name in the glass before, presumably, being caught in the act. You can still see “Tom” clearly on the windowpane.
After the main house, we went outside for a look at the garden and carriage house and then went into the outbuilding that housed the kitchen and servants’ quarters:
After the tour, we walked across the street for a closer look at the Presbyterian Church where Wilson’s father was pastor:
The five eldest among us enjoyed the tour very much and it left us eager to learn more about Woodrow Wilson and his later, post Augusta years. As for the four year old?
He was very patient and well-behaved on the tour. I congratulated him on making it through so well at the end and asked, “I know it was long, but some of it was fun, right?” He started to nod, then paused for a second before saying, “actually, I didn’t like any of it. But I knew I should be quiet.”
Well. At least he’s honest (and often quiet when the situation calls for it). We’ll work on developing his love of presidential history and house tours later.
Thanks to the Boyhood Home of President Woodrow Wilson for hosting our visit and to the Augusta Convention and Visitor’s Bureau for helping us plan a great trip! I was not otherwise compensated, and all opinions are my own, as always.