Reopening

The Woodrow Wilson Family Home at 1705 Hampton St. in Columbia will formally reopen at 10 a.m. Saturday, immediately following a 9:30 a.m. ceremony. Fitz Woodrow, a descendent of the 28th president, is expected to attend, and there will be a festival from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

The house also will open from 1-5 p.m. Sunday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, President's Day.

Admission is $8, or $5 for children.

COLUMBIA - The family home of Woodrow Wilson, the nation's 28th president, has long served as a museum, but its doors have been shuttered for nine years to repair extensive damage to its roof and foundation.

The Historic Columbia Foundation used the lengthy closure to rethink how best to tell not only the story of the home, but also the story of this city during Reconstruction. It was during this post-Civil War era -specifically 1871 to 1874 -when Thomas "Tommy" Woodrow Wilson spent three of his teenage years here, an experience would shape both him and the nation.

Fielding Freed, who directs the foundation's historic house museums, was one of many who helped guide the restoration and interpretation of South Carolina's only presidential site.

"There's the common memory and myths regarding Reconstruction, and then there's the reality of it," Freed said. "We're doing something no one else is doing."

Many institutions may avoid the Reconstruction narrative in part because it touches on issues of race and heritage on which many still disagree.

One inscription on the wall, a quotation from Wilson's history of the United States, may strike some as being as true today as when he wrote it in 1901: "Reconstruction is still revolutionary matter... Those who delve in it find it like a banked fire."

The house museum will reopen to the public Saturday, with a series this Presidents' weekend of special events.

Saved twice

The greatest artifact at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home is the house itself, said John Sherrer, Historic Columbia's director of cultural resources.

That's why the foundation worked with Richland County, which owns the property, on a $3.6 million renovation. The project began with an extensive study by John Milner Associates, Inc., a preservation consulting firm.

The resulting construction work ultimately included replacing about 90 percent of the foundation sills, which were extensively damaged by the house's failed interior gutter. It also included restoring a wood-shake roof, and recreating the grounds to reflect the mix of public, family and work spaces that existed in Wilson's time.

But the most dramatic change may be the nature of the interior, which lost much of its period furnishings - few of which had any tie to the Wilsons - in exchange for more interactive exhibits interpreting the Reconstruction era and how it influenced later struggles for women's and minority rights.

"It's a major departure for us," Historic Columbia director Robin Waites said.

The Wilson home also marked the beginnings of a preservation movement in Columbia, when citizens rallied in 1928 to save it from being torn down.

Wilson died in 1924, so his memory was still fresh when the home was threatened by a proposed auditorium -a project ultimately moved one block north and visible from the rear piazza.

'A product of his time'

There are other historical sites involving Wilson, including his earlier boyhood home in Augusta, Ga. and his burial place and his presidential library in Staunton, Va.

But the house at 1705 Hampton St. was the only house Wilson's parents ever owned, perhaps because when they eventually sold it for $5,000 in 1876, they took a $2,000 loss over what it had cost to build.

"They were looking to establish Columbia as their permanent home," Sherrer said. "Ultimately, that did not come to pass," and the family moved to Wilmington, N.C.

The Woodrow Wilson Family home is also unique because of its focus on the Reconstruction era, a relatively ignored chapter in the state's history and one that complements the foundation's other museum homes, which focus on either earlier and later eras, Waites said.

"We talk about Wilson in this context, as a product of his time," she added. "His views on race were more accepted then than they would be today."

The docents are getting extensive training to give tours to people with different perspectives about Reconstruction and race.

The new exhibits include a red shirt worn by one of former Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton's supporters -a group that helped end Reconstruction - as well as an authentic carpet bag, a piece of luggage that became a derogatory term for Northerners who moved South after the war to seek profits.

But they don't guide the visitor into a set narrative of the era.

"We didn't envision this as a historic house museum that tells you want to think," Ford said. "In fact, just the opposite. We aren't forcing the issue here. We're just telling Wilson's story."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.