Friday, May 8, 2015

A 1915 Spring in Washington

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania. You heard about the tragic deaths that resulted in this attack, but how about another view? Director Robert Enholm at the President Woodrow Wilson House explains what was happening in President Woodrow Wilson's life during this tragedy.

The azaleas and dogwoods are abloom as spring erupts across Washington, D.C.

President Wilson’s wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, had died in the White House that previous summer, the very week that the German Empire invaded Belgium to commence the “Great War.” The fall and winter were hard as Wilson dealt with his personal grief and witnessed the growing tragedy of the global war and strained to keep the United States out of the cataclysm.

The arrival of springtime is always greeted with a smile in Washington, and it must have been especially so for President Wilson in 1915. The longer days and bright flowers were accompanied by a personal turn of events: The President had fallen in love! In late March, through serendipitous circumstances, President Wilson had been introduced to a Washington widow named Edith Bolling Galt. They fell for each other immediately.

The circumstances for this budding romance were difficult. How does a sitting President woo a lady in the early twentieth century? There were no tweets or email. Telephones were still novel, and telephone conversations were not confidential. Prevailing rules of decorum prevented the couple from even meeting together without a chaperon.

The answer in 1915 was handwritten letters. Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt commenced a flurry of romantic correspondence, much of which has survived to the modern day.

Mr. Woodrow Wilson and Edith Wilson
on their Wedding Day in 1916
President Woodrow Wilson House
President Woodrow Wilson even sent a letter on the day that the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo. The passenger ocean liner on her way from New York to Liverpool sank in 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 died, 127 of them Americans.

Many thought the sinking of the Lusitania would plunge the United States immediately into The Great War. Instead, it took two years, until April 1917, before President Wilson sought a declaration of war.

President Wilson relied on diplomacy in responding to the Lusitania sinking. His love for Edith Bolling Galt surely provided emotional strength to him in this time. By Sunday, May 9, President Wilson was writing to her:

“My love for you passes current expression. I need you. … Do you think it an accident that we found one another at this time of my special need and that it meant nothing that we found each other so immediately and so joyously? … I hope that you will be thinking of me to-night. I shall be working on my speech for to-morrow and on our note to Germany. Every sentence of both would be freighted with greater force and meaning if I could feel that your mind and heart were keeping me company!” 
-(The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Arthur Link, ed., vol. 33, 1980) 

It was an amazing spring in Washington.
-Director Robert Enholm

Friday, April 10, 2015

War & Art

Today, War & Art: Destruction and Protection of Italian Cultural Heritage during World War I will be on display at the President Woodrow Wilson House through July 2015.

The tragedy of World War One included not only human casualties but also the damage and destruction of cities, towns, great buildings, gardens, statues, libraries, museums and the works of art within them. Throughout the “Great War,” the Italian people struggled to protect their cultural patrimony from the ravages of war. These photographs in the War & Art exhibition document their efforts to protect these iconic works.

St. Marks Basilica, Venice
 (Photo Courtesy of Archaeology Travel

One of the historical structures protected during this time was St. Marks Basilica in Venice, Italy. Considered a treasure of Italian cultural heritage, St. Marks has been the Cathedral Church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice since the 1000s. War & Art shows the extensive efforts the Italians made in order to protect and preserve the Cathedral. These preventative measures ranged from using sandbags to building fences to protect the Basilica’s interior and façade.

In addition to the Cathedral, the Italians also cared for the four life-size bronze horses on the Basilica’s front façade. To many, these sculptures might seem less significant compared to the structure of the Basilica. However, these horses symbolize the long and vast history of Venice to the Italian people.

MCRR Album V, 60x:
Venice, St. Mark's Basilica,
removal of the bronze horses on the facade,

Originally, these bronze horses belonged to the Byzantine Empire and stood as part of the Hippodrome of Constantinople for centuries. During the 1200s, the Venetians triumphed over the Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade. Their victory led them to take home the riches of the capital—including these horse sculptures. Doge Dandolo, the Venetian leader, arranged for the four horses to be installed on the front façade of St. Marks Basilica. Ever since, the Venetians take pride with this symbol of their triumph over the Byzantine Empire. 

Due to this rich history, the destruction of World War I proved to be too vast and great to leave the horses unprotected. In 1915, the Italians decided to dismantle and relocate the sculptures. War & Art shows the process of the horses moving from the front façade to the ground where they were packaged in order to be shipped to safety.

St. Marks Basilica and the bronze horses are only some of the many stories incorporated into War & Art. The photographs in this exhibition not only document early preservation efforts, but have also become works of arts in their own right. 

MCRR Fp2 0081: Possagno in the province of Treviso,
transportation of the gypsum statue of George
Washington by Antonio Canova after the museum was bombed
As a site of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the President Woodrow Wilson House is pleased to co-sponsor and to display this remarkable collection of photographs taken in Italy during World War One. We extend our thanks to the Italian government and people and to the Embassy of Italy to the United States for making this exhibition possible.

This exhibition has been organized by Istituto Per La Storia Del Risorgimento Italiano, Roma, the Embassy of Italy and the Italian Cultural Institute in Washington D.C., with support from theItalian Cultural Institute of Chicago.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

#PrezDress Style Tip: Canes

For President’s Day, the President Woodrow Wilson House invites visitors of all ages to dress as their favorite President or First Lady. For fun, we want to inspire our “Presidential Visitors” and share some #PrezDress style ideas.

How about the old walking stick? Many American Presidents carried a cane as a fashion accessory including George Washington, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley, Warren G. Harding, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman and of course Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson at Princeton in 1902
However, Wilson was known for carrying a cane even before his presidency. As a newly elected president of Princeton, a photograph shows him sporting an elegant cane. During his lifetime, walking sticks were considered a must-have fashion accessory among the fashionable elite. The Washington Post in January 1914 referred to the cane as "the rock-ribbed badge of fashion and social distinction, the mark alike of the gentleman of leisure and dilettante of the mode." In order to keep up with the rapidly changing fashion trends, a man of fashion would buy a new cane every month:

1920s Cane Fashion Trends

Winter- Darker wood and heavier weight

Summer- Lighter color and weight

Time of Day- Different style of cane for the morning, afternoon, and evening
President Woodrow Wilson's cane collection continued to grow after he moved into the White House in 1913.  During his presidency, he acquired over 50 canes. Many of them were received as gifts from the American people. One gift, presented to Wilson in 1914, told his life story. Made out of light wood and topped with a silver band, the cane was inscribed with Wilson’s biography beginning with his Princeton University graduation in 1879 to his years as Governor of New Jersey from 1910-1912. 

Wilson biography cane was presented to him in 1914.
The full inscription reads: 

Woodrow Wilson / Democratic President of the United States / Educationalist / Author / Statesman / Princeton: Graduated 1879; Professor of Jurisprudence, Political Economy, Politics, 1890, 1897; President, 1902, 1910 / Bryn Mawr: Professor of Political Economy, 1885, 1888 / Wesleyan: Professor of Political Economy, 1888, 1890 / University of Virginia: Law Student, 1879, 1880 / Lawyer, 1882, 1883 / Democratic Governor of New Jersey, 1910, 1912. Made of a piece of wood from the property of the First Democratic Governor of Louisiana, carved and presented to the President by his first grandson whose name he bears. Alex Moulton, Lafayette Louisiana, 1914.

Today, you can see Wilson’s collection of canes throughout his S Street Residence. In addition to his growing collection, his stroke in 1919 caused Wilson to use the cane for more utilitarian purposes. Over time, the cane turned from a fashionable accessory to a needed companion for him-- which he called "my third leg."

President Wilson leaves his home on S. Street to attend Armistice Day celebrations supported by his valet Isaac Scott and his trusty cane. 

Ladies we are not forgetting about you!

For a brief time, women carried canes in public especially during the age of the flapper. Nell Wilson McAdoo, President Wilson’s daughter, made the headlines by carrying a cane in public. Although both women and men were carrying canes,  The Washington Post mentioned the style differences between them in October 1913. They described women’s walking sticks to be ornate with “gold and jeweled beads” in order to “harmonize with the walking costume she happens to be wearing while carrying the stick.” Eventually the fad phased out, but it was still considered a part of fashion.

An unidentified woman demonstrates an ingenious Prohibition-era accessory, the cane-flask, Washington, DC, 1922 (Photo Courtesy of

Come by President Woodrow Wilson's House to show off your #PrezDress on Presidents' Day!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Holidays Through History

On Saturday evening, around 330 people visited the President Woodrow Wilson House as part of our annual Holidays Through History Open House. Those who purchased tickets for the event were also able to visit Tudor Place, Dumbarton House, and Anderson House, three historic house museums in the Washington, D.C. area. All four houses we decorated for the holidays and provided activities, live music, refreshments, and more!

Here at the President Woodrow Wilson House, we decorated as the Wilsons might have done for Christmas, 1922. While President Wilson never fully regained the health that he enjoyed prior to his 1919 stroke, he was doing comparatively well in 1922. He often enjoyed small day trips around this time, and he was even feeling well enough for a small Christmas gathering of friends and family at the S Street residence. The dining room is currently decorated to represent that intimate Christmas dinner. Some of Mrs. Wilson’s beautiful china is on the table, including plates from the Martha Washington china set that she and President Wilson received on the occasion of their wedding.
This year's Christmas table features the Wilsons' Martha Washington China. Photo courtesy of Diane Barber.
The Wilsons received quite a few Christmas gifts while they lived on S Street. Many people sent gifts of food, which very likely ended up on the table for Christmas dinner. Potted flowers such as poinsettias were also very popular, as visitors can see from the various arrangements throughout the house.

Despite the fact that there were quite a few fireplaces in their home, the Wilsons rarely lit fires for warmth in the winter months. Electricity and other modern conveniences were becoming commonplace by the 1920s, and fireplaces were therefore mostly used for ambiance. This meant that fireplaces could be decorated with all sorts of materials without there being much danger of starting a house fire. Several of the mantles here at the Woodrow Wilson House have been decorated with ribbons, greenery, fruit, and other festive materials in order to reflect this.
Decorations, flowers, and gifts announce that the holidays have come to S Street! 

Of course, no house is truly decorated for Christmas until the tree is up and trimmed. The Wilsons’ tree was always placed in the solarium where it was framed by the palladian window and visible from the main staircase. It was also lit by strings of electric lights that would not be very unfamiliar to us today. Candle-lit trees were mostly out of fashion by the 1920s, partially due to electricity becoming more and more available at a cheaper cost and partially due to the fact that, according to Phillip V. Snyder's 1976 The Christmas Tree Book, many insurance companies had stopped covering fires that were caused by Christmas trees!

Aside from lights, 1920s Christmas trees were adorned with a variety of ornaments. Glass baubles and stars were used, as were a variety of paper ornaments. Paper was a bit of a novelty in the post-World War I period, as it was being mass produced and sold at a low cost for the first time. People used it to make everything from paper garlands to “glitter” or “putz” houses to use on the tree or in their Christmas villages. Visitors who attended the Holidays Through History event had the chance to make their own paper star ornaments. Some guests were even kind enough to help the Wilsons with their decorating by hanging their stars on our tree!

The President Woodrow Wilson House will be decorated for the rest of the holiday season. Whether or not you get the chance to enjoy our decorations, we at the President Woodrow Wilson House hope that you have a happy and safe holiday!

-Sophia Vayansky, Fall 2014 Intern

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Happenings Around the House: Visitor Feedback Survey Results

        If you have visited the President Woodrow Wilson House in the past month, you probably noticed the surveys placed at the front entrance. For a total of thirty days, the President Woodrow Wilson House guides administered a comprehensive visitor feedback survey. All visitors to the House between October 7, 2014 and November 9, 2014 were asked to complete the survey. We are happy to report that we received a total of 124 completed surveys, which well exceeded our initial goal of 100 responses.

         Before administering the survey, the staff spent a long period of time analyzing the design, delivery, and objective of the survey. After several revision periods, the staff settled on a survey that was three pages long and consisted of fourteen questions. The survey was administered after guests had completed the tour and consisted of all, but one, multiple choice questions. When developing this design, the President Woodrow Wilson House consulted the previous surveys that had been conducted (the most recent being from 2008). Administering visitor surveys is a common museum practice and allows museums to receive feedback directly from their patrons. 
        This survey was designed to help the President Woodrow Wilson House answer three main questions: who is our “typical” visitor, are we achieving the goals set forth by our mission statement, and what impression of Woodrow Wilson are guests leaving with. By answering these questions, the staff will be able to better cater the tour to visitors’ needs. The results were extremely interesting and will be put to work to improve the experience of all returning and future visitors to the home. 

Here are some of the results:
A majority of the visitors during this time period were from California!

Most people thought the library was the most interesting room in the house!

Most people visited the Woodrow Wilson House because they were interested in learning 
more about American history. 

Thank you to all of our visitors that took the time to fill out the survey. We greatly appreciate your feedback and are working to implement your suggestions. The President Woodrow Wilson House also hopes to continue administering surveys of this type for years to come!
-Madison Keller, Fall 2014 Intern