Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Of all the Presidents of the United States, only one -- Woodrow Wilson -- stayed in the District of Columbia after he left office. Wilson was crippled by a stroke while in office, and never recovered. He could barely walk, his left arm was paralyzed, and he was blind in his left eye. Like many stroke victims, he was prone to sudden fits of violent temper and deep episodes of depression. Wilson also had little ability to concentrate, and could only focus on writing for five to ten minutes at a time.
Wilson hadn't had a personal home since 1902, but his finances were in solid shape as his term as President came to an end. The Wilsons considered living in Baltimore, Boston, New York City, and Richmond in addition to the District. Although D.C. came in last in terms of friends, climate, opportunities, and amusements, they chose the city because First Lady Edith Bolling Wilson considered it home.
Wilson initially wanted to build a house in Georgetown, but that proved impractical. So his wife went house-hunting with her brother, a realtor. She settled on a house at 2340 S Street NW in Washington. Friends of the Wilsons raised $100,000 toward the $150,000 asking price, and raised another $100,000 to provide Wilson with a $10,000 annuity (presidents at that time did not receive a pension).
The house had been built by Henry Fairbanks, owner of the Bigelow Carpet Co., in 1915. Prominent Washington architect Waddy Wood designed the structure. The basement occupied the front of the house, and consisted of a boiler room, coal bin, coal receiving room, elevator machinery, and small wine cellar. The first floor was a reception floor. In the front, there was a small office (used by Wilson's personal secretary), a foyer, and a small receiving room. On the left was a trunk room (for accepting guests' luggage) and a servants' hall; on the right was the kitchen and pantry. A center hall contained the main staircase to the second floor.
The second floor was the main floor. In the front was a huge drawing room, with balcony. It was on this balcony on November 11, 1923, that Wilson last appeared in public. To the right of the drawing room, extending to the rear of the house, was a serving kitchen, butler's pantry, and (at the rear) dining room. On the left side of the house was a small staircase to the personal quarters on the third floor, and Wilson's library -- where he stored his vast collection of books, exhibited memorabilia, and screened motion pictures. A solarium in the rear of the house provided a balcony and access to the porch and patio atop the garage.
The third floor contained the personal quarters of the Wilsons. In the front of the house were two guest bedrooms, each with a private bath. On the left side of the house was Wilson's bedroom, which had a private bath and walk-in closet. On the right side of the house was Edith Wilson's bedroom, walk-in closet, dressing room, and private bath. Connecting the two bedrooms in the rear of the house was a small nurse's bedroom and an enclosed porch. The center hall acted as a recreation room, and often Wilson sat at a desk here and played board games, wrote, or talked with his secretary.
The Wilsons were attended by six servants, which included a man and wife acting as butler and housekeeper. The staff also included two parlor maids, a cook, and a gardener/chauffeur. The fourth floor was only half the size of the other floors, and centered at the top of the house. There was a large bedroom for the married couple to the left, and four tiny bedrooms for the rest of the staff extended to the right from that bedroom. A huge laundry occupied the front of this floor.
The Wilsons moved into the home on Inauguration Day -- March 4, 1921. Over the next two years, Wilson turned the servants' hall into a billiard room, added shelving in the library for his 8,000 books, and built a one-story brick garage to house his Pierce Arrow limousine.
After Wilson's death in 1924, Edith Wilson lived there until her death on December 28, 1961. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was one of the last guests in the house, when she attended a brunch in the dining room.
Edith Wilson bequeathed the property and all of its original furnishings to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.