As the beloved wife of the 28th American president, Ellen Axson Wilson became the first activist first lady, working for better living conditions for the poor who lived in the shanties that sat in the middle of the nation’s capital. A talented impressionist artist, Ellen also led the charge over various beautification projects in and around the executive mansion, including the creation of the famous White House Rose Garden.
Born in Savannah, Ga. in 1860, Ellen Louise Axson came to Rome, Ga. at a young age when her father became the minister of the First Presbyterian Church. There, Ellen met the love of her life one Sunday morning in April 1883. Then-lawyer Woodrow Wilson had been in town visiting relatives when their paths crossed. A long-distance relationship formed by way of Rome and Atlanta, but the miles did not keep them apart. Ellen and Woodrow soon became engaged.
Following the death of her father in 1884, Ellen left town to receive a prized education at the Art Students League of New York City, where the young artist studied under the experts of the day. Early in her life Ellen also had the opportunity to study at art colonies in New Hampshire and Connecticut.
Following her marriage to the future president in June 1885, Ellen gave birth to three daughters, and lived a happily married life in different locales as Woodrow’s work in higher education took him around the eastern seaboard.
In 1914, the Rome Chamber of Commerce planned a special homecoming to celebrate the progressive and sophisticated community that Rome had become. Famous Romans past and present were invited to return for the festivities that October. The most notable Roman at the time was Mrs. Wilson, who graciously accepted.
Unfortunately, Ellen never made it, succumbing to a rare kidney disorder on August 6, 1914. She was 54.
One hundred years later, the Rome Area Council for the Arts and Oak Hill & The Martha Berry Museum are celebrating the first lady’s life and art with the Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming, a centennial commemoration that began in July with the opening of a gallery exhibition featuring some of Ellen’s original oil paintings of beautiful landscapes. The installation will remain in the gallery until November 1, and are included with admission onto the mansion grounds.
A painting of Ellen with her daughters by Robert Vonnoh, a former instructor of hers, is one of the first pieces that greets visitors at the exhibit. Artwork on display appears courtesy of the collections of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, the Woodrow Wilson House, private collectors, and Rome’s Sara Hightower Regional Library.
Following a centennial memorial service held earlier this month, additional events are also scheduled to honor Ellen’s contributions and life’s work. In September there will be two book signings and a special lecture with Pulitzer Prize nominee Kristie Miller, author of Ellen & Edith, Woodrow Wilson’s First Ladies. Also in September will be a special gala featuring music from the Rome Symphony Orchestra, where guests will enjoy savory cuisine similar to meals served in the White House during the Wilson administration. Later this year visitors will be able to see a free exhibit of Ellen’s personal belongings, photographs and other memorabilia on display at the Rome Area History Museum.
Set for next year the Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming committee will unveil a bronze statue of the first lady in Downtown Rome. The selected site will feature the artist painting in the Town Green alongside the picturesque Oostanaula River.
Ellen’s final resting place above Downtown Rome at historic Myrtle Hill Cemetery is free and open to the public to visit during daylight hours.
For more information about Rome’s first lady and the Ellen Axson Wilson Homecoming commemorative events, visit www.RomeGeorgia.org, or call 800.444.1834.