Reconstructing the Reconstruction: Historic home gets new life

When Columbia’s Woodrow Wilson Family Home reopened this month, visitors were once again able to explore the onetime household of America’s 28th president. But they can now also expect some added value — thanks, in part, to USC history professors Ken Clements, Tom Brown and Allison Marsh, all three of whom served on the site’s restoration advisory committee.

As a Wilson biographer, Clements brought one kind of expertise to the project. Brown, an expert on the Reconstruction era when Wilson lived in the house, brought another. As a public historian, Marsh was instrumental in figuring out innovative ways to treat the house as a museum.

“We all brought different things, though we were by no means the only people involved,” says Clements, giving credit to Historic Columbia, which now maintains the house.

Built by the Wilson family in 1871 after they moved to Columbia from Augusta, Ga., the Hampton Street home was saved from demolition in 1928 when the American Legion and other patriotic groups blocked a plan to build the Township Auditorium on the site. For many years, it served as a museum honoring Wilson and recognizing his time in Columbia, but it gradually fell into disrepair and was eventually closed to the public in 2005.

Now owned by Richland County and administered by Historic Columbia, the newly reopened museum is not only more architecturally sound; it also offers a broader view of history.

“The Wilson family part isn’t dramatically changed from the way it used to be. It’s still presented in more or less the same way,” says Clements. “What’s new is, instead of just looking at what was happening inside the house, what the family was doing, the displays now try to look at what was going on outside the house, too — in the city, in the region, in the state.”

More specifically, the re-imagined museum serves as a window on the tumultuous Reconstruction era, when the South was undergoing unprecedented change.

“There isn’t really any museum anywhere else that actually specializes in Reconstruction, although it’s a critical period in American history, with the transition from a slave society to a free society,” says Clements. “These, of course, are touchy issues, but we thought it was important that people think about them and talk about them.”

And the conversation has already started, particularly among Carolina undergraduates and graduate students, many of whom contributed research that aided in the museum’s development.

“Reconstruction in Columbia has attracted little previous scholarship, so original research by USC students was crucial to the success of this project,” says Tom Brown, who supervised more than twenty senior projects on topics such as postwar orphanages, domestic services and municipal politics.

In addition, several graduate students wrote seminar papers, including one by Jennifer Taylor about the many entertainers who performed at Columbia’s opera house in the mid-1870s. John Sherrer, a graduate of Carolina’s master’s program in public history and Historic Columbia’s director of cultural resources, was also instrumental in the project.

Wilson lived in the Capital City only from 1870 to 1874 (minus one lonely academic year spent studying at N.C.’s Davidson College). However, this relatively short period was marked by significant developments in the future president’s life, according to Clements.

It was during this time, Clements explains, that the Presbyterian Church began to shape the future president’s thinking, as the young Wilson spent time at the nearby Columbia Theological Seminary where both his father and his uncle were on the faculty. It was also during this time that the aspiring leader became interested in politics.

“Wilson is a pretty fascinating character,” says Clements. “He is one of the few academics to make it to high political office, which is interesting in itself, but he was also terribly important in terms of international relations and in terms of the culmination of the reform period known as the Progressive Era.”

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