The Birthplace - The Manse
Sitting atop the crest of a hill in downtown Staunton's Gospel Hill historic district is the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson. The house is often referred to as a manse which is the term the Presbyterian Church uses to identify the residence of their minister.
Enjoy an engaging guided tour of President Wilson’s birthplace, a beautifully restored Greek Revival manse, and experience what life was like when he was born there in 1856. An authentic example of a Shenandoah Valley home during the pre-Civil War era, this National Historic Landmark is decorated with Wilson family treasures and period furnishings.
In January 1846, church session minutes record an appropriation for building the manse. Mrs. Smith's father, the Reverend James Morrison of Rockbridge County, Virginia wrote, "The congregation has contracted to have a house built for Mr. Smith, which it is said will be the best house in Staunton when it is finished. The lot on which it is to be built is one of the most beautiful situations in Staunton. . ." The ladies of the church held a fair in June 1846 and raised $300 to pay the balance on purchase of the building lot.
The handsome Manse erected on the lot may have been designed by the Reverend Rufus W. Bailey, founder of Augusta Female Seminary in 1842 (now Mary Baldwin College), and designer of its classical main building (1844), for he served on the church's building committee. The manse and the college's old building are strikingly similar in style.
Builder of the manse was John Fifer of Augusta County. His son, later Governor of Illinois, recalled that the bricks were fired just west of Staunton along the Parkersburg Turnpike, and that some of the construction workers left the job to become soldiers in the Mexican War. Church records indicate that the total cost of constructing the 12-room Greek Revival style brick house with its center halls and four chimneys was about $4,000.
In December 1854, the Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a professor at Hampden-Sydney College, accepted a call to be pastor of Staunton Presbyterian Church. Mr. Wilson, his wife, Jessie Woodrow Wilson, and their daughters Marion and Annie moved into the Staunton manse in March 1855. One year and nine months later on December 28, 1856 the third Wilson child was born "at 12¾ o'clock at night" as his proud father recorded in the family Bible. The child was named Thomas Woodrow Wilson for his maternal grandfather.
Four ministers' families occupied the manse following the Wilson family. To cover debts from construction of a new church, the Presbyterian trustees sold two sections of the large lot surrounding the manse in 1874. Woodrow Wilson returned to Staunton many times during his childhood. His Aunt, Marion Woodrow Bones, and her family lived here, and his sisters and several cousins attended Augusta Female Seminary under its principal, Miss Mary Julia Baldwin, a close friend of his mother. In 1912, as President-Elect, Wilson spent two nights in his birthplace home when he returned to Staunton to celebrate his 56th birthday.Wilson was a friend and former classmate of Rev. Abel McIver Fraser, D.D., the minister at the time of his visit.
Following President Wilson's death in 1924, the trustees of Mary Baldwin College, led by Dr. Fraser, determined to raise funds for a memorial building to the President. The congregation of First Presbyterian Church gave its approval in 1925 to the sale of the manse to the college for $30,000 and the college held it until a group could be formed to preserve and interpret the home as a Birthplace museum for the late President of the United States. The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation was formally established in 1938. The first restoration of the manse started in 1940 and was completed in 1941. In May 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to Staunton to dedicate the restored Woodrow Wilson Birthplace as a "shrine to freedom."