You don't have to take a White House tour to walk in the footsteps of a U.S. President. The homes of two of America's most complex, important Presidents are open to visitors (and much easier to get into than the White House, nowadays!).
Woodrow Wilson House
The first, is the 28-room home America's 28th President, the Woodrow Wilson House (2340 S St. NW; tel. 202/387-4062; www.woodrowwilsonhouse.org; Tues-Sun 10am-4pm except major holidays; Metro: Dupont Circle). Its story is a tragic one. Wilson had had a stroke a year previous to leaving office and was too ill to attend the inauguration of his successor. Instead he was driven to his new home, a 1915-built mansion, in the prestigious Kalorama neighborhood. With little money of his own, his wife used the cash from his Nobel Peace Prize and the donations of friends to buy and furnish the home. Since Presidents back then were allowed to keep the gifts they received while in office, the home was decorated with a number of remarkable objects. A mosaic of St. Peter hangs in the Drawing Room, a gift from Pope Benedict XV when the Wilsons toured Europe at the conclusion of World War I. On another wall in that same room, a token from the French government, a priceless Gobelins tapestry hangs; it's so massive the bottom of it has to be rolled up. A complete samurai outfit, presented by Emperor Hirohito, can be seen in the library.
Alas, Wilson's ability to enjoy his opulent home was limited. He never recovered from the stroke (in fact, there's speculation that for the last year of his presidency it was his wife and not him who was calling the shots) and died just 36 months after moving in. His wife Edith lived here until her death, many years later, but kept the home looking exactly as it had when Wilson was alive. In this way, it's very much a time capsule for high living in the early 1920's: you'll see what was then a state-of-the-art icebox in the kitchen, and a pantry filled with boxes of "Kellogs Pep" and other goods from that era. But more poignantly, you'll learn about the difficult final years of a man who may well have been one of the country's most intellectual and idealistic Presidents.
Guided tours lasting about 60 minutes are scheduled on the hour.
President Lincoln's Cottage
A major strength of the Wilson tour is the remarkably intact nature of his home. President Lincoln's Cottage (in the Soldiers Home at the intersection of Rock Creek Rd. NW and Upshar Rd. NW; tel. 800/514-ETIX; www.lincolncottage.org; Mon-Sat 10am-3pm, Sun noon-4pm; Metro: Georgia Ave/Petworth and then the H8 bus or a 10-minute walk), which sits on the ground of the Soldier's Home and was used for many purposes over the years, has not a stick of furniture that Mary or Abe might have rested a weary hand on. The curators, aware of this deficiency, have turned to audio and video displays to recreate some sense of authenticity. And because of the strength of the tale they have to tell, their methods work remarkably well.
The Lincoln family moved into the cottage the summer after son Willie passed away in 1862 to escape the overbearing heat of lowland D.C. in summer. On the tour, you'll hear about the daily life of this Civil War First Family; about the informality of this "mini-White House" where tourists would stop by just to chat with Abe and soldiers gather in the kitchen for a snack. You'll learn how his living here might have changed the course of the war; removed from the fish-bowl of the Presidential Mansion, Lincoln was able to talk more directly with the soldiers who surrounded him. He also often met wounded soldiers on the way back from the front on his daily commute to the White House. He never failed to stop and talk with them about what they had witnessed.
Like the Wilson tour, a visit to the Lincoln Cottage will introduce you to a side of the President of which you were probably unaware. For Lincoln fans -- and doesn't that include just about all of us? -- this makes for a moving and at times, powerful pilgrimage.
Note: Advanced reservations are strongly advised. The site opened to the public in 2008 and often its tours sell out.
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