Most presidents flee Washington when their time in the White House comes to an end. Who can blame them? President Wilson, the 28th inhabitant of the Executive Office, was different. He moved into a house in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington and lived there the rest of his life. (He’s even buried in Washington at the National Cathedral). His wife eventually donated the house to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and today it is a museum devoted to educating people about Wilson’s life and legacy. It’s also the only presidential house open to the public in Washingon, other than the white one. Wilson lived the last three years of his life here, from 1921-1924, and today the house is restored to its early 1920’s appearance.
I hadn’t visited the Wilson house in many years and recently took an opportunity to get a sneak peek at a new exhibition “Woodrow Wilson, President Electric.” The exhibition looks at the scientific and technological advances made in the Progressive Era with specific focus on a Wilson perspective. Visitors can listen to recordings over a period telephone, play recordings on a Victrola record player, try making a speech using a period radio set, and other fun activities. This is an engaging exhibition.
The artifact I found most interesting is a blue electric car in the garage on loan for the run of the exhibition. The Wilsons were early fans of electric cars, and Mrs. Wilson is thought to be the first woman in Washington to drive one. Electric cars were more popular with women at the time because they didn’t require cranking and were essentially maintenance-free. Of course, they didn’t offer speed either. Men wanted that. Wilson owned a 1918 Milburn Electric and supposedly drove it on the White House grounds. It could reach a speed of 35 m.p.h. and travel about 60-75 miles per charge.
The car in the garage (link to short video about the car) is similar to one the Wilsons drove. It is surprisingly roomy inside, but one key item is missing. A steering wheel. A lever or tiller sits above the driver’s lap on the left and controls direction and speed. I was extremely tempted to hop in and attempt to drive, but wouldn’t have had a clue how to start the thing or steer it.
A tour of the house reveals a fascinating time when technology was rapidly changing and Wilson took advantage of his position to try to latest machines. For example, he and his wife watched silent movies with a projector given to them by actor Douglas Fairbanks. The kitchen, too, displays interesting appliances.
I highly recommend a tour of the Wilson house. Have you visited it? What did you think?
Photos by Beth Wilson. Used with permission.