Kurt's Historic Sites


Woodrow Wilson

Interment Location Visited Sequence in Graves I Have Visited
Washington, D.C. June 12, 2004 8th President visited

Photographed November 8, 2021.

When a high profile American — such as Senator John McCain or General Colin Powell — is honored with a funeral at the Washington National Cathedral, it is typical for former presidents and first ladies to attend the services. In such instances I always keep in mind that there is another White House couple present in addition to the ones sitting among mourners or delivering eulogies. I speak of Woodrow and Edith Wilson, who rest in a bay just off the nave.

I am shown here standing beside the 28th president’s sarcophagus from within the nave, with the Wilson Bay’s stained glass windows shining brightly in the background. On June 11, 2004, just one day before this picture was taken, former President Ronald Reagan’s funeral was held at the cathedral. Fellow chief executives Gerald FordJimmy CarterGeorge H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush were all in attendance, which technically put seven U.S. presidents in the same room at once. Only Wilson was there for me to see the next day, though my father and I had paid our respects to Reagan early on the 11th as he lay in state in the U.S. Capitol.

Photographed June 12, 2004.
Woodrow Wilson's Grave
Photographed June 12, 2004.

Former President Wilson’s first resting place within the cathedral was in its lower level Bethlehem Chapel. His casket was relocated to the Wilson Bay after its completion in 1956, which coincided with the 100th anniversary of his birth. The history of the cathedral’s construction is long: its cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and George H.W. Bush made a speech upon its completion in 1990. A 5.8 magnitude earthquake in 2011 caused $34 million in damages to the building and necessitated over a decade’s worth of restoration work.

As is to be expected for a tomb within a cathedral, the Wilson Bay has religious overtones. A crusader’s cross is carved into the top of the former president’s sarcophagus, while the stained glass windows that color it in the daylight are rich with symbolism. Per the cathedral’s website, the glass arrangements “depict war and peace through the lens of the Christian faith. The left lancet depicts peace as God gives us; the right lancet depicts peace as humanity destroys it, and the center lancet represents God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

Photographed November 8, 2021.
Photographed November 8, 2021.

Generally regarded as a consequential president, Wilson is divisive, even though his name is not always included in the debates over the policies that comprise his legacy. People of different ideologies have long disagreed about the merits of the Federal Reserve, a federal income tax, and international cooperation and globalization. The following excerpt comes from the 2019 C-SPAN book, The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best — and Worst — Chief Executives: “Woodrow Wilson’s overall rank has steadily declined, from 6th in C-SPAN’s 2000 survey to 11th in 2017. Although historians have marked him down in all leadership categories over the three surveys [conducted prior to this book’s publication], his most precipitous fall has been in pursued equal justice for all, with a decline from 20th to 35th.” Wilson’s racial segregation policies have sullied his reputation in other ways: in 2020 the Princeton University Board of Trustees voted to remove his name from the institution’s School of Public and International Affairs. Wilson served as Princeton’s president and was also an alumnus.

Fast Facts

Born: December 28 (or 29), 1856 in Staunton, Virginia

Spouses: Ellen Louise Axson Wilson (m. 1885-1914); Edith Bolling Wilson (m. 1915-1924)

Political Affiliation: Democratic Party

Gubernatorial Tenure: 1911-1913

Presidential Tenure: 1913-1921

Vice President: Thomas Riley Marshall

Nobel Peace Prize: 1919

Died: February 3, 1924 in Washington, D.C.

Cause of Death: Stroke

Age: 67

Last Words: “The machinery is worn out. I am ready… Edith!”

Interment: Washington National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

"Is the present war a struggle for a just and secure peace, or only for a new balance of power? If it be only a struggle for a new balance of power, who will guarantee, who can guarantee, the stable equilibrium of the new arrangement? Only a tranquil Europe can be a stable Europe. There must be, not a balance of power, but a community of power; not organized rivalries, but an organized common peace."
- Woodrow Wilson

January 22 1917 in a speech to the U.S. Senate titled, "A World League for Peace"
Photographed February 3, 2024.

Woodrow Wilson died at 11:15 a.m. EST on February 3, 1924. Exactly a century later, to the minute, I took the photograph of his deathbed that is shown here. I was among the seven-or-so tourists who booked the 11 o’clock tour at the Wilson House that day. I appeared to be the only one of the group who knew in advance that it was the 100th anniversary of the president’s passing. Choosing the tour that put me in the S Street House at the hour of death was incidental on my part, however. Instead of taking us on the typical tour route, guide Luke Withycombe directed us from the “dugout” on the first floor straight up to Woodrow’s third floor bedroom so that we could be in his quarters at the exact century-mark of his passing. When the time came, Luke was answering another visitor’s question, so I raised my hand and alerted him that it was 11:15. He then led our group in a minute-long moment of silence, during which I snapped this image, among others.

Sources Consulted and Further Reading

Hansen, Liane. 2007. “National Cathedral Celebrates Centennial Year.” Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR. Washington, DC: NPR, September 23. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=14620987.

Lamb, Brian and the staff of C-SPAN. Who’s Buried in Grant’s Tomb? A Tour of Presidential Gravesites. Rev. ed. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003.

Lamb, Brian, Susan Swain, and C-SPAN. The Presidents: Noted Historians Rank America’s Best — and Worst — Chief Executives. New York: PublicAffairs, 2019.

Office of Communications. “Board of Trustees’ decision on removing Woodrow Wilson’s name from public policy school and residential college.” Princeton University. June 27, 2020. https://www.princeton.edu/news/2020/06/27/board-trustees-decision-removing-woodrow-wilsons-name-public-policy-school-and.

Washington National Cathedral. “Earthquake Restoration.” Accessed January 14, 2022. https://cathedral.org/architecture/earthquake/.

Washington National Cathedral. “Wilson Bay.” Accessed January 14, 2022. https://cathedral.org/what-to-see/exterior/wilson-bay/.

Wilson, Woodrow. “‘A World League for Peace’ Speech,” January 22, 1917. Transcript. From University of Virginia, Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-22-1917-world-league-peace-speech.

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