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.
In 1844 Staunton Presbyterian Church called the Reverend Benjamin Mosby
Smith as minister. Mr. Smith declined--perhaps due to the lack of housing.
The next year the church purchased lots on the eastern edge of the thriving
town to build a manse. Shortly after this Reverend Smith accepted a renewed
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
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.
Reverend Smith and his family moved into the comfortable new home in June
1847 and remained its first residents until 1854 when Mr. Smith was elected
professor at Union Theological Seminary, then located at Hampden-Sydney
College in Prince Edward County, Virginia. 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.
Only 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 friend of his mother, Jessie Woodrow Wilson. But
Woodrow Wilson did not visit the manse again until the year 1912 when, as
President-elect of the United States, he returned to Staunton to celebrate
his 56th birthday on December 28th in the house in which he was born.
Following President Wilson's death in 1924, the trustees of Mary Baldwin
College 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 established in 1938. The first restoration
of the manse started in 1940 and was completed in 1941 bringing the
Presbyterian Manse back to its appearance of 1856 when Thomas Woodrow Wilson
was born. In May 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to Staunton
to dedicate the restored Woodrow Wilson Birthplace as a "shrine to freedom."
Admission to Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum includes a guided
tour of President Wilson’s birthplace manse, a self-guided tour of the Woodrow
Wilson Museum including the new World War I trench exhibit, and admission to the
Victorian-style historic garden.
Special admission prices for school groups and adult groups.