The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum honors the legacy of the 28th president and is located in the historic downtown of Staunton (pronounced STAN-ton), Virginia, in the scenic Shenandoah Valley. This is more than just a library; it is also the site of the future president’s birth on December 28, 1856. The primary mission of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, according to its website, is education. As part of our homeschool studies, my son and I went to deepen our understanding of WWI and its impact on the country and the world, and we ended up in the trenches of the Western Front.
Visiting the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum is comprised of a complex of buildings perched on a hill at the corner of Coalter Street in Staunton, Virginia.
We entered through the Smith Center which serves as the visitors center where we purchased our tickets to the museum. We then went on to explore the museum, which takes visitors on a dynamic tour of Wilson’s life.
From his pre-Civil War birth to his childhood, to his time at Princeton, to his marriage, family, period as Governor of New Jersey, to his presidency, and finally to his death. The museum provides a wealth of information and exhibits as it investigates the man, his era, and his legacy.
Woodrow Wilson's Pierce-Arrow
One of the most popular and prominent exhibits at the museum is the presidential limousine. The shiny black Pierce-Arrow made in 1919 was part of the White House fleet of vehicles while Wilson was in office. President Wilson absolutely loved the car. He loved it so much that friends of his purchased it so that it could be his personal car after he left office. It also has the distinction of being the very first object donated to what would become the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum in 1925. Visitors who enjoy classic cars will relish seeing this pristine vehicle and learning about its historical past.
World War I Trench Warfare
The Immersive WWI Trench exhibit is a favorite and with good reason. Created in May of 2010, the exhibit contains a collection of artifacts from WWI. The large exhibit in the museum basement recreates a realistic trench like the ones on the Western Front.
Descend the stairs and find yourself in Verdun somewhere between 1914 and 1918. The exhibit does an excellent job of depicting the trenches’ sound effects, zig-zag pattern, and narrowness, and it even includes several items that would have been commonly found in a trench during the war. Gas masks, helmets, weapons, cots, and even a working trench periscope provide visitors with an immersive look at life on the Western Front.
The timeline of Wilson's life
The museum is on the first floor of the building and features seven exhibit galleries depicting Woodrow Wilson’s life and public service through historic photographs, documents, and artifacts. The galleries delve into several key areas of his life, including his childhood, and public life, from his Princeton studies to his historic Great War peace efforts, the 14 Point Plan, and his service as the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921.
Woodrow Wilson’s views on race were troubling and as the museum’s website states, “We make no excuses for Woodrow Wilson’s racist beliefs.” We learn from our history and to that end, while we were there the museum was preparing for an upcoming series called Reckoning. The series, in keeping with the commitment to education, investigates individual presidents’ views and political policies toward minority populations, with a focus on how presidential policies aimed at them affected each of these minority groups.
The Birthplace - The Manse
Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born on December 28, 1856, to Jesse Woodrow Wilson and her husband, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson. The third child in the family, the future president had two older sisters.
Wilson’s father was a Hampden-Sydney College professor who had accepted a call to be the pastor of Staunton Presbyterian Church two years before the birth of his son. The small family relocated to the lovely Greek Revival home on Gospel Hill. Although the family moved on when Woodrow was still a young boy, he would return and spend two nights as President-elect in 1912, and shortly after his death in 1924, the Presbyterian Church gave its approval to sell the home in 1925 to be a museum for the late President.
Visitors to the Library & Museum may take a guided tour of the home at designated times throughout the day to learn what life would have been like back in 1856. The manse is a genuine example of a pre-Civil War Shenandoah Valley home, and it is furnished with Wilson family treasures and period furnishings. If your visit does not correspond with a tour, a 360-degree virtual tour is available. Because our visit didn’t coincide with a tour, I took the virtual tour on my phone from the comfort of our hotel room at the nearby Blackburn Inn. You can read more about the Blackburn Inn here.
Parking at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum is directly behind the home. Adjacent to the parking lot is the expansive gardens. These beautiful gardens make a wonderful welcome to visitors and have their own special story.
In the manse’s early days it was also a working farm for the families living here. Over the years, the size of the property got smaller, but there was always a garden. Different groups have cared for these gardens throughout the years, and in 2008 the Garden Club of Virginia brought new life back by planting an array of new shrubs, plants, and flowers. In 2015, the gardens lost the boxwoods to disease but with love, care, and a great deal of work, the gardens are thriving and stunning once again.
What I liked
Woodrow Wilson’s story is intriguing. And while there are elements of his life that are pretty bad such as re-segregating the U.S. military, authorizing segregation within the Federal Government, screening the film Birth of a Nation at the White House, and holding racist views, his museum does a good job of tackling these challenging topics while also highlighting the significance of his time in office.
I especially enjoyed the Immersive WWI trench. This exhibit is well-done and impactful. It’s also a delight to see the classic Pierce-Arrow limousine. Especially knowing how much he enjoyed the car and how it came to be the first piece in the museum. Additionally, I loved the gardens and the gorgeous location that’s within walking distance of the picturesque historic downtown area.
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum is a great itinerary item when visiting Staunton, Virginia, and the Shenandoah Valley.
The tour is primarily self-guided but if you bring your smartphone and it is fully charged, you can use the QR readers to access additional activities and content that are included with your general admission ticket.
If you’re into history and learning about the presidents, the museum does a good job of presenting the 28th president’s life and times. I would have liked to have seen a little more information about the second Mrs. Wilson and her influence after her husband’s stroke, but there was a section of the museum that was closed for construction so perhaps that’s forthcoming.
Overall, this is an outstanding educational site that offers a little something for everyone with programs and activities for students of all ages. Pairing that with the magnificent location and proximity to the charming downtown of Staunton, Virginia, that makes a visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum a winning ticket.
Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum
20 N. Coalter Street Staunton, VA 24401
For travelers with questions about accessibility, learn more here.
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