Woodrow Wilson home to reopen in February as museum on Reconstruction

dhinshaw@thestate.comNovember 11, 2013 

What once was a shrine to Woodrow Wilson’s brief boyhood in Columbia is being transformed into a site examining the post-Civil War period when blacks and whites shared political power and prestige.

The carefully restored house will reopen Feb. 15, becoming the only museum in the country devoted solely to the tumultuous Reconstruction era, leaders of Historic Columbia Foundation, the caretaker of the house, said at a news conference Monday.

“Reconstruction was essentially that first Civil Rights era, so concepts of citizenship we acknowledge today were planted at that time,” said John Sherrer, director of cultural resources. “It’s a watershed era that is largely ignored.”

The still-vacant house, at Hampton and Henderson streets downtown, has been closed for eight years.

It was on the verge of ruin, with more shingles lying on the ground than attached to the roof, when it was closed in 2005, Historic Columbia director Robin Waites said. Ninety-two percent of the foundation had to be replaced.

The “unprecedented” and “comprehensive” rehabilitation cost $3.6 million, most of it coming from the owner, Richland County government, Waites said. The gardens were restored through a $100,000 grant from the Columbia Garden Club.

“I’m delighted,” said Ann Oliver, chairwoman of the restoration committee, as she toured the house with visitors. “It’s been a long process, but we finally got it done.”

Among the topics exhibits will explore are:

• Reconstruction (1865-1877), how it shaped Columbia and how its legacy is evident today.

• The social and political implications of domestic service.

• Family life, values and activities commonly shared by middle-class whites and blacks during Reconstruction.

• How religion shaped the lives of the local African-American and white communities.

• Efforts to re-establish the pre-war social and political power of whites, shown through political cartoons and historic photographs.

The house was built for the Wilson family. They lived there from late 1871 to 1874, when son Woodrow, known then as “Tommy,” was a teenager.

When the house was saved and opened as a museum in 1933, exhibitions looked specifically at Wilson, the president. Now, that view will be expanded to the Wilson family and the era in which they lived in Columbia, Sherrer said.

The Reconstruction period was a heady time for African-Americans in South Carolina. They wielded power in the State House and the University of South Carolina opened its doors briefly to black students.

By 1912, when Wilson was elected president, segregation had hardened throughout the South, and many African-Americans looked to Wilson to soften the nation’s stance on civil rights. But, while disapproving of virulent white supremacy, Wilson proved conservative on race, continuing to allow segregation in government.

About 25 people attended the morning news conference, held in the shade of a large tea olive and magnolia trees believed planted by Wilson’s mother, Jessie.

Among attendees was Bill Pope, whose wife, Eleanor Pope, serves on Historic Columbia’s board.

“It’s really amazing they can cobble history and political times together into something as monumental as this,” he said, standing on an open porch, facing the Township auditorium.

Sherrer said Historic Columbia decided to expand the story told through the house both because it provided a unique opportunity and because historic homes related to Wilson are located elsewhere, in Staunton, Va., Augusta and Washington, D.C.

Monday’s announcement was held on Veteran’s Day as a nod to Wilson, who declared Nov. 11, 1919, as Armistice Day, now Veterans Day.

Staff writer Carolyn Click contributed. Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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