Connecting the Past to the Present
The renovation of the grounds at what is now known as the Museum of Reconstruction Era at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home is the focus of the 2022-23 Annual Fund. Each year, the Annual Fund supports a special and vital initiative of Historic Columbia.
Historic Columbia reopened the Woodrow Wilson Family Home in 2014 as the nation’s only museum dedicated to interpreting the post-Civil War Reconstruction period. The renovation of the landscape that wraps around the historic home was included in this all-encompassing reimagining of the site.
The original gardens reportedly were designed under the influence of Jessie Wilson, the 28th president’s mother. Like other landscapes of the period, it was divided into the formal front yard and the working back yard. Little documentation of the property exists from the Wilson family’s ownership in the 1870s, but roses, tea olives, crepe myrtle, japonica, and other shrubs were likely planted in the front, decorative garden. The working garden would have featured vegetables for cooking and flower beds that were cut for decoration. The landscape renovation was inspired by its historic usage.
The changes to the interpretation of the home continue to foster dialogue around the importance of this pivotal period in history and the connection to current events; however, the renovation of the gardens has not met with the same success. Issues with the initial installation continue to limit the functionality of key interpretive features, and the decline in some of the oldest plant materials is driving the decision to make some substantial changes to the space. In 2006, when Historic Columbia began to address the 14 acres of landscapes across the six sites that it manages as part of the Cultural Landscape Master Plan, it acknowledged the impermanence of gardens.
Since adopting the overarching plan, Historic Columbia’s commitment has been to ensure that it has the capacity not just to install new gardens but to maintain them. To that end, Historic Columbia’s Grounds Team developed a plan for the gardens at the Wilson site that will enable it to interpret the historic space more effectively through the following changes:
- the naturalistic lawn and shrub plantings will be extended along the northeast side of the property in place of the large gravel lot,
- site drainage will be installed to mitigate washouts and standing water,
- upgrades will be made to the existing irrigation system to better meet the needs of the well-planted pleasure garden,
- the beds in the work yard will be upgraded with high-quality topsoil capable of sustaining flower and vegetable beds, and
- new signage and an audio tour will provide additional content for visitors to the site.
These changes will immediately make the grounds of the Museum of the Reconstruction Era more attractive and usable. Over time, as new plantings mature, the gardens will develop into the ideal picture of a Victorian suburban property, the beauty of which will allow Historic Columbia to delve further into the complex story of its past.
Support for the Annual Fund is key as gifts of all sizes help Historic Columbia achieve its goal of preservation, education, and advocacy. Through your generosity, an updated landscape will be created that connects the past with the present in hopes of inspiring our shared future.
A landscape plan similar to what the Wilson family home might have looked like can be found in designer and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing’s 1942 publication Cottage Residences: Or, A Series of Designs for Rural Cottages and Cottage Villas, and Their Gardens and Grounds, Adapted to North America.
Over time, as new plantings mature, the gardens will develop into the ideal picture of a Victorian suburban property, the beauty of which will allow Historic Columbia to delve further into the complex story of its past.
The existing lawn will be extended over the underutilized gravel lot.
Rudimentary drawings of what the gardens may look like post-renovation.