Overview

Many, if not most, tours of 19th-century historic house sites in the South begin at the front door of the main house where public spaces are viewed. Tours of service areas, including outbuildings, if they remain, may or may not follow. Often the roles of African Americans and others associated with the site’s day-to-day domestic activities are under-represented, if discussed at all. Through this virtual tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, Historic Columbia Foundation hopes to expose visitors to these often neglected aspects of southern history. Evidence in building design, historic artifacts, newspapers, and images highlight the roles that African Americans and the advent of new technology had on shaping domestic work during the Reconstruction era of the mid-1860s through mid-1870s.

HS-1 Harper’s Weekly, July 21, 1866

Historic Columbia Foundation collection, 2010.2.1

Freed from bondage, African-American Columbians picked up the pieces of their lives to forge a new future. For many, though no longer enslaved, this future nonetheless involved working some of the same jobs they did prior to the Civil War. For others, Reconstruction brought greater freedoms and opportunities.

The Wilson Family Home

On November 16, 1870, Joseph Ruggles Wilson purchased a one-acre plot of land on the northeast corner of Plain (Hampton) and Henderson streets from John Waties for $1,850.00 (approximately $33,265.00 in 2010 dollars). Plans for constructing a residence followed.

HS-2 Excerpt from C. Drie’s Birds Eye Map of Columbia, South Carolina, 1872.

Image courtesy Library of Congress

Having initially received a degree in engineering in France, Camille N. Drie served the Union Army as a draughtsman during the Civil War (1861-1865). Following the war, Drie established a lithography business in which he produced about twelve birds eye maps of southern cities from the 1870s to 1900.

Drie depicted Columbia in 1872. His selecting the city may have been influenced by his feeling that such a map would prove popular with citizens interested in celebrating the city’s post-war rebirth. Drie’s work illustrates the extent to which this physical recovery had erased much of the destruction that followed Union Army occupation in February 1865. Notable are multiple landmark buildings, including the Wilson family’s brand new residence, situated at the northeast corner of Plain (today Hampton) and Henderson streets [outlined in red]. Apparent are neighboring properties that then included the large Nickerson Hotel with its tall tower and large residences to the east and west that reveal the level of material wealth and comfort that Woodrow Wilson and his family would have enjoyed compared with other families of the time.

According to an undated, early newspaper article about the property, G.T. Berg is credited with being the building’s architect. It is reasonable to deduct that G.T. Berg was Gustavus Theodore Berg, a German immigrant listed as a “draughtsman” in the 1860 Columbia city directory and as an architect in its 1879 edition.

HS-3 Columbia City Directory, 1860 & 1879.

Images courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

The 1860 Columbia City Directory reveals that Berg rented a room on the corner of Richland and Lincoln streets, within the Arsenal Hill neighborhood. Skill in technical drawing led him to Columbia in 1854 to assist in the construction of the new South Carolina State House under Baltimore architect John Niernsee. City directories were early versions of today’s phonebook, listing the name, address, and occupation of residents. How are the 1860 City Directory and a contemporary Columbia phonebook different?

The 1879 Columbia City Directory lists G.T. Berg as an architect, whose office was on the southwest corner of Richardson (Main) and Taylor streets. Why did his title change? Thanks to his experience on the State House, did the German immigrant promote himself differently to gain greater respect within the area?

Berg appears to have been influenced by the ideas of Andrew Jackson Downing, one of a handful of mid-19th century designers who published pattern books featuring floor plans of sketches residences and instructions as to their layout, composition, and detail. While Woodrow Wilson indicated his mother weighed in on their home’s design, how much she affected Berg’s final plan remains unknown.

HS-4 The Architecture of Country Houses

Image courtesy GoogleBooks, http://books.google.com

The residence that Berg designed for the Wilson family shared many interior aspects of Design XXVII, “A Small Country House for the Southern States,” found within Downing’s pattern book, The Architecture of Country Houses. Both Downing’s plan and that of Berg feature very similar arrangements overall. The main difference in their interiors is the presence of two rooms, a water closet and bathing room, within the first story of the Wilson residence.

On March 30, 1871, Dr. Wilson entered into contract with builder Robert W. Johnson to construct the only home the family would ever own. How did Wilson come to know Johnson? The 1860 Columbia City Directory lists Johnson as a carpenter located on Henderson Street between Laurel and Pickens (sic – Pickens should be Blanding) streets and as a builder living at 217 N. Henderson Street in the 1879 City Directory. While portrayed differently, both entries actually refer to the same physical address, which was only one block from the Theological Seminary. However, they also show how Johnson was promoting himself to would-be clients, having advanced in his trade. The contract between the two men stipulates how Johnson was to finish both the main house and kitchen building.

HS-5 Copy of Construction Contract.

Image courtesy Richland County Register of Deeds, Columbia, South Carolina

An excerpt from the contract describes the major building concerns of the day, such as plumbing, materials, design preferences, cost and time limitations.

A Dwelling House and Kitchen according to a certain lot of plans and specifications, with the following exceptions, as to say. Cover the said Building with shingles instead of tin, and leave out the open celer (sic) as denoted on the Plot. Also leave out all Plumbing and Slate Mantles (sic). But to provide wood mantles (sic) instead. To build the Kitchen on brick piers instead of solid walls. Also leave off the shutters on the kitchen. To Plaster one Kitchen Room and one second story Room only . . . R W Johnson further agrees to complete the said Building on or before the first day of October and the aforesaid Rev W Wilson of the second part agrees to pay or cause to be paid to the said R W Johnson of the first part the full and just sum of Seven Thousand Dollars $7000.00.

The family paid for its new home (which would have cost approximately $125,866.00 in 2010 dollars) through Dr. Wilson’s two jobs and an inheritance received from one of Jessie Wilson’s brothers. The house is believed to have been completed sometime between October 1871 and early 1872. C. Drie’s 1872 birds eye map of the city clearly illustrates the property and one of its dependencies, or support structures.

Design-wise, the house featured two main sections, one comprised of the public spaces (parlors, dining room, and a study) and private spaces (bedrooms), the other, a service area involving a detached kitchen house, pantries, water closet, and bathing room. Of the two sections, the service area was smaller; set in slightly from the footprint of the rest of the house; and featured rooms modest in size.

Historic Paint Scheme Restoration

Paint analysis is a conservation technique used to uncover the historic paint treatment of a structure. This analysis involves sample collection, microscopic analysis of those samples and color matching using the Munsell system.

The service areas of the house appear to have been painted differently than the public areas. Curiously, however, two purely service-oriented rooms, 108 and 109, have a hybrid treatment with decorative graining on the doors and door surrounds only and plainer treatment on the trim elements inside the rooms.

The ceilings in the rooms do not appear to have been painted originally, but were exposed white plaster only.