The Kitchen House

Daily life within the main house depended heavily on the property’s two-story kitchen house. This architectural carry-over from the antebellum period, of putting the kitchen in a separate building behind the main house, held social as well as practical meanings. Here African-American workers prepared meals within one of the wood-frame building’s two first-story rooms, presumably the one specified for plastering in the builder’s agreement. Food and supplies may have been stored within the remaining first-floor chamber or that space may have been used as a laundry. The building’s design called for a domestic worker or workers to live upstairs, as outlined in Downing’s pattern books. This arrangement was identical to that found within the Wilson family’s Augusta, Georgia home where it lived from 1858 until 1870. While reinforcing social hierarchy, this arrangement also afforded the main house a measure of protection from fire, as well as the family some distance from a constant source of heat, noise, smells, and bugs associated with food preparation in an era before consistent refrigeration.

HS-1 Excerpt from Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1919.

Image courtesy South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Sanborn maps reveal important information through colors, lines, numbers, and symbols. For instance, the color yellow indicates that the Wilson family’s house and kitchen dependency were both made of wood. The main house is assigned the letter “D” for “dwelling.” The circles indicate that the roofing materials for the house and kitchen were metal (in the year 1919, when the map was drawn). The “X” on the breezeway indicates that portion of the building featured a wood shingle roof, a carryover from the site’s original roofing materials from the 1870s. The numbers “1” and “2” denote how many stories that portion of the building offered. Lastly, the broken lines tell us where the house porches stood. An amenity the Wilsons would not have known is the two-story porch that their former home featured 45 years after the family had left Columbia.

It is not known to what extent this structure featured modern day conveniences such as a cast iron stove or gas lighting, the latter of which was found originally in the main house. [Gas stoves were not available until the 1880s.] However, the structure itself was not sturdy enough to have supported a slate roof, a feature occasionally found within masonry dependencies that helped reduce damage by fire. It featured a wood shingle roof such as the one found on the main house today.

Before and during the Civil War, the Wilson family lived in manses or houses provided by the Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Virginia and Augusta, Georgia. Both residences featured areas where domestic servants, most likely enslaved African Americans, would live and work. In keeping with the prevailing, pre-war social structure, the Wilson family most likely continued to depend on the work of African-American domestic workers at its Columbia home. Tasked with preparing meals, cleaning laundry, and other housework, these persons would have known the family’s Plain (Hampton) Street home in a very different way. Age 45 by the time the house was completed, Janet Woodrow Wilson almost certainly would have managed her home with pre-war social customs. For instance, separation of workers from public spaces, unless called upon, would have continued to be the norm. This social arrangement was important to and remains obvious in the architecture of her former home.

HS-2Two Worlds Under One Roof

Images courtesy John Milner Associates, Inc.

The division of public and private spaces within the Woodrow Wilson Family Home is most evident when looking at the footprint of the building. Those areas used by the family and open to guests to the home are notably more spacious and oriented toward the front of the residence. Within three of the rooms are wide bay windows that offer views of the surrounding pleasure gardens. At the rear of the building, those spaces designed for domestic service and hygiene functions are noticeably smaller. In fact, this portion of the building is stepped back slightly from the west and east walls of the main house indicating its secondary importance architecturally.

HS-3 Unidentified African-American domestic workers, circa-1870.

Historic Columbia Foundation collection

African-American women and men during the Reconstruction period continued to play vital roles in white households, like they did before emancipation. Studies of census records indicate that many African-American citizens often lived within smaller buildings located behind larger houses owned by whites, an arrangement found in the design of the Wilson residence and former kitchen house. The women in this photograph were among those citizens who worked toward defining a new existence for African Americans following the Civil War.

At the time the Woodrow Wilson Family Home was saved from destruction and turned into a shrine celebrating the 28th President of the United States, the property’s kitchen flanker remained intact. Unfortunately, no photographs of the structure have been found. This leaves contemporary stewards of the property with only a handful of clues to understand its history. Taken in 1969, an oral history that describes the building during the late 19th and early 20th centuries adds to the information found within the builder’s contract and a handful of maps.

HS-4 Excerpt from T.C. Hamby’s Plat map, circa-1912 (with circa-1928 updates).

Historic Columbia Foundation

Hamby’s map depicts the layout of the Wilson family’s former residence during the first two decades of the 20th century. At this point, the kitchen, the rectangle at the top of the main house with the connecting passageway, remained standing. Other, one-story, buildings were present then, too.

Archaeological excavations were performed in 2007 in the hope of locating the former kitchen’s foundation piers. Those that once supported the kitchen’s west side were destroyed in the 1990s during the removal of an underground oil tank, most likely a remnant of the building’s 1920s-era furnace. However evidence remained for the building’s former east-side footings. The location of the brick piers that once supported the kitchen indicates the support structure stood about three feet closer to the main house and in line with the building’s eastern corner than Sanborn Fire Insurance Company maps illustrate. Evidence of other building materials, such as brick, nails, and glass surfaced as well. Archaeologists also discovered a variety of ceramics related to food preparation and consumption, including sherds (pieces) of undecorated whiteware and yellowware, in addition to other utilitarian stonewares, items that were known to have been in use during the Reconstruction period.

HS-5 “Reconstructing” the Kitchen Building

Images courtesy John Milner Associates, Inc.

By combining evidence drawn from the contract description, various maps, and archaeology architectural historians were able to arrive at a digital model of the former kitchen building. This graphic allows contemporary audiences to better appreciate how close the structure stood to the main house, as well as its height and massing. If photographs of the kitchen ever are discovered, then that information will be added to the model so that an even clearer idea of its appearance can be formed.