Park Service grant will help restore Woodrow Wilson's boyhood home

COLUMBIA -- The National Park Service has awarded a $335,000 grant to restore repair Woodrow Wilson's boyhood home on Hampton Street in Columbia -- South Carolina's only presidential site.

The grant -- along with $1.3 million in hospitality taxes from Richland County Council -- will allow the Historic Columbia Foundation to fix the ailing roof, siding, foundation and electrical system.

The work will stabilize the structure from further damage but will not improve the interior of the house enough to allow it to be opened for visitors, Historic Columbia director Robin Waites said.

Richland County owns the house, which has been closed to visitors since October 2005. It is managed by Historic Columbia.

Woodrow Wilson, the nation's 28th president, spent four years of his youth in Columbia. He and his family lived in the home, which was built by his parents in 1872.

The award was one of 40 Save America's Treasures grants given by the park service out of 223 applications.

"The threat (to the house) was very substantial," said Hampton Tucker, chief of historic preservation grants for the park service. "(The foundation) will correct the threats, and they are doing it for a rather modest amount of money."

The house -- one of six historic homes managed by Historic Columbia -- needs $3.2 million to be returned as a first-rate house museum, Waites said.

"We had to close it because it was unsafe for visitors and the collections (of artifacts)," she said.

The house will remain closed for the near future, she said, "but we hope to bring people on site to see how historic structures are renovated. It takes a different sensibility and sensitivity."

The total cost includes restoring the 1870s-era garden in front of the house and the working orchard and vegetable garden in the rear and rebuilding outbuildings.

The garden features magnolias planted by Wilson's mother more than 100 years ago.

The Wilson home will be the centerpiece in Historic Columbia's planned 21-block Garden District. Each of the six historic homes in the district would represent a different era in gardening.

The Victorian home, built in the style of a Tuscan villa, kicked off the city's preservation movement in the late 1920s, when the American Legion and the American Legion Auxiliary bought it to preserve as an homage to the 28th president, who shepherded the nation through World War I.

"We have so few (historic sites) in Columbia because of our history," said County Councilman Greg Pearce, referring to the city's burning during the Civil War and the razing of many historic structures by the city and developers over the past 40 years.

"So little is left, that it's important to preserve this," he said. "It will help draw people to that historic district."

Wilson, who was born in Virginia, lived with his parents and two siblings in Columbia from 1870 to 1874, when he was in his teens.

His parents supervised the construction of the home, and the family moved into the house in 1872. It would turn out to be the only house the family ever owned.

Wilson's father, Joseph Ruggles Wilson, was a Presbyterian minister, and the family usually lived in church-owned housing.

Joseph Wilson was a supply minister at Columbia's First Presbyterian Church and a teacher at the Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in the nearby historic Robert Mills House at the time.

When Joseph Wilson moved on to another assignment, the house was sold to the Gillespie family in 1876. In 1896, Main Street furniture merchant James VanMetre bought it. He later founded the Dunbar Funeral Home on Gervais Street.

VanMetre's daughter was Saluda VanMetre, who was the grandmother of Baylis Dunbar Kuhne.

Kuhne said she remembers her grandmother telling stories about the house, mostly about the animals -- chickens and ponies -- raised in a barn in the back-yard. An animal lover and gardener, Saluda VanMetre's favorite pet was a large parrot, which often perched on the front porch to the delight of people strolling down Hampton Street.

"The house means a lot to me and other members of my family," Kuhne said. "I ride by and think about my grandmother.

"I would love to see it open to the public. And I would love to see the barn rebuilt and the garden restored. And maybe a parrot could live there."

Restoring a treasure

Renovating the Woodrow Wilson Family Home on Hampton Street:

• A worn-out roof will be replaced by a wood shingle roof.

• The sill -- a wood beam that sits on the foundation and supports the walls -- will be replaced.

• Outdated electrical and plumbing systems will be replaced.

• Original water closets and bath areas will be restored.

• A detached kitchen and a visitors building with bathrooms will be reconstructed.

• The Victorian garden, orchard, and vegetable and herb garden will be restored.

Want to give? Donations for renovations of the Woodrow Wilson boyhood home or establishment of the Garden District can be made to Historic Columbia, 1601 Richland St., Columbia, SC 29201. For more information, call Robin Waites at 803-252-7742, ext. 24.