Usually when you step inside a historic home for a tour, you see red velvet ropes keeping you from sitting on delicate antique chairs. A docent reminds you to keep your hands off the walls so that the oils from your skin won’t contaminate the painstakingly reproduced wallpapers. And sparkling china recreates a meal that would have been eaten in the formal dining room during the home’s heyday.
The tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home
is a completely different experience: paint peels off the ceilings, plywood boards are laid down over the family parlor’s floors, and plumbing juts out of the walls in the gutted bathrooms. It’s also one of the most fascinating house tours I’ve ever taken.
On a few square blocks in Columbia, several historic homes rehabilitated and maintained by the Historic Columbia Foundation
stand like the beautiful “After” pictures in fashion magazine makeover. The Woodrow Wilson Family Home is a work-in-progress – the “Before” picture – but this peek into the restoration process is fascinating.
Volunteer Hank Shaw, a retiree who became involved in the Historic Columbia Foundation after he stopped working, gives the “Hard Hat Tours.”
Shaw makes it clear that he’s no historian, but his easy-going demeanor and his curiosity about the house make him a great tour guide. He shares interesting details about President Wilson’s family life, information about the home’s architecture, and he lays out the plans for the home’s future.
Phase One of the rehabilitation is complete; the foundation has been fixed and the outside of the building has been repaired and repainted with historically accurate colors. An outbuilding is being constructed on the grounds to house a catering kitchen and restrooms. There are no actual hard hats, but it’s definitely a place that’s under construction.
Inside, the work that will make up Phase 2 is immediately apparent, and the deteriorated state of the house is testimony to the importance of Historic Columbia Foundation’s work in preserving and protecting historical architecture. The plastic protecting the floors or the missing plaster on the walls might not be glamorous, but it gives incredible insight into the amount of work that will go into preserving the only presidential home in South Carolina.
Hard Hat Tours
are given on the first Tuesday of every month at 11 a.m. Tickets are $6 and can be purchased at the Museum Shop at the Robert Mills House at 1616 Blanding Street.