An Irish harp sits in the drawing room of the Washington, D.C. house once occupied by former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The three-story, red brick, neo-Georgian structure at 2340 S St. NW in the city’s fashionable Kalorama neighborhood is two miles northwest of the White House, where Wilson held office from 1913 to 1921. He died at the private residence on Feb. 3, 1924, aged 67, nearly five years after he suffered a stroke.
At 3-feet tall, the Irish harp is smaller than models of the instrument typically played in orchestras. It is more decorated, too, with green and gold Celtic knots, zoomorphic motifs, medallions, and clovers, as seen in two images in this post. The crown bears the name of the manufacturer, “Clark Irish Harp, ” and 1914 and 1915 patent dates.
The harp belong to Margaret Wilson, the president’s eldest daughter, an accomplished singer and pianist. It was either given by, or purchased from, Melville Clark of Syracuse, New York, the instrument’s creator. Clark performed at the White House during Wilson’s first term of office, when Margaret served as a “social hostess” after the death of Ellen Axson Wilson, her mother and the president’s first wife.Meghan Drueding, “How Margaret Wilson’s Harp Reaches People On A ‘Visceral’ Level” in National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Magazine, Spring 2017; and Aug. 28, 2023, … Continue reading
Clark (1883-1953) designed the portable Celtic-style harp that bears his surname after a 1905 trip to Europe, including a stop in Ireland, where for centuries the instrument has been considered a heraldic and nationalist symbol. Clark said he “learned much of the romantic part the instrument has played in that country’s history. It was while doing so that the idea of developing a small harp was something I wanted to do.”Linda Pembroke Kaiser, Pulling Strings: The Legacy of Melville A. Clark. (Syracuse, N.Y., Syracuse University Press, 2010), p. 31, citing Clark, “Music: My Hobby, My Profession, and Business,” … Continue reading
Clark met Cardinal Michael Logue (1840-1924), primate of Ireland, on the steamer from the United States, and he visited the prelate’s residence in Queenstown, now called Cobh. Clark recalled they had several “animated conversations” about harps, including Logue’s own instrument, which the cardinal “cherished exceedingly.” Clark purchased several Irish-made harps to bring back to Syracuse, including one that had been owned by Irish poet and composer Thomas Moore (1779-1852). It influenced Clark’s design in the characteristics of size, shape, and construction.Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 31, citing Clark, “How I Came To Invent the Clark Irish Harp”, 1942.
The Clark Irish Harp “became his most important contribution to the world of music,” biographer Linda Pembroke Kaiser has written.Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 5. While regular concert harps were too big, too expensive, or too difficult for most amateur musicians, Clark’s instrument was affordable and could be learned by nearly any adult or child. The first handcrafted models began to appear in 1908 and used rock maple instead of the bog oak of traditional Irish harps. Mass production began in 1911, three years before Clark performed for the president and his daughter.
White House performances
Clark played at the White House on March 27, 1914. The invitation developed through his association with John McCormack (1884-1945), the Athlone, County Westmeath-born tenor. They became acquainted when the singer performed concerts in Syracuse and purchased one of Clark’s harps for one of his children. Clark returned to the White House on May 27, 1914, specifically to accompany Margaret Wilson.Kaiser, Pulling Strings, pp. 104-110.
After one of these performances, Clark recalled decades later, the president invited him to bring his harp to a rear portico. The musician wrote that Wilson:
… suggested one song after another—Scottish and Irish songs and those of Stephen Foster. He sang easily and with faultless diction. It was nearly midnight when he stood up to go, amazingly buoyant, relaxed and unworried.”Melville Clark, “I Played the Harp for Wilson”, Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 1945.
Wilson had a complicated relationship with Ireland and the Irish. His two paternal grandparents hailed from Strabane, County Tyrone, in today’s Northern Ireland. In 1912 he touted this heritage to appeal to the Irish-American voters who gravitated to the Democratic Party, which nominated him for the presidency. But Wilson grew agitated with pro-independence Irish activists during the First World War and subsequent Paris peace conference. “Your attitude on the matter is fraught with a great deal of danger both to the Democratic Party and to the cause you represent,” warned one of the president’s closest aides.Joseph Tumulty to Wilson, cited in John Morton Blum, Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Comp., 1951), p. 176. Irish Americans in turn lobbied Congress to reject Wilson’s post-war plans and helped tip the 1918 midterm and 1920 presidential elections to the Republicans.
Clark met Wilson again in 1917 to present his idea of dropping messages from balloons to counter German propaganda. The president was enthusiastic about the idea, and the plan was eventually adopted by the Allies. The first balloon offensive launched over German airspace occurred in March 1918.Kaiser, Pulling Strings, pp. 99-103. About the same time, Clark and Margaret Wilson began to perform together for troops at U.S. military camps in New Jersey.
Wilson made the first nationwide remote radio broadcast from the S Street house on Nov. 11, 1923, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the armistice ending World War I. A few weeks earlier, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the war-time leader and a key negotiator of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, paid a visit to Wilson at the house. The two men discussed “the world conditions of today rather than memories of yesterday,” according to a news report.”Lloyd George Lays Wreath On Unknown Soldier’s Tomb In Arlington Today”, Associated Press report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 26, 1923. One can only imagine if the conversation included the newly created Irish Free State and partitioned Northern Ireland.
Clark returned to the White House to perform for presidents Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s successor, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. He also acquired for his collection a harp that once belonged to the Irish patriot Robert Emmet (1778-1803).Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 132. By coincidence, President Wilson attended the 1917 unveiling of the Emmet statue in Washington, D.C. by Kerry-born sculpture Jerome Connor. The statue was relocated 50 years later to a small park a block from the Wilson house, where it stands today.
Margaret Wilson died in 1944, aged 57. Clark died in 1953, aged 70. His papers at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center contain correspondence from Woodrow Wilson and Margaret Wilson dated between 1914 and 1922. I’ve reached out to the archive for more information about this material and will update this post as appropriate.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, the president’s second wife, bequeathed the S Street house and its furnishings, including the harp, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She died in 1961, aged 89. The mansion has been open to the public since 1963.
|↑1||Meghan Drueding, “How Margaret Wilson’s Harp Reaches People On A ‘Visceral’ Level” in National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Preservation Magazine, Spring 2017; and Aug. 28, 2023, email reply from President Woodrow Wilson House staff to my questions.|
|↑2||Linda Pembroke Kaiser, Pulling Strings: The Legacy of Melville A. Clark. (Syracuse, N.Y., Syracuse University Press, 2010), p. 31, citing Clark, “Music: My Hobby, My Profession, and Business,” notes for public lectures, 1948.|
|↑3||Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 31, citing Clark, “How I Came To Invent the Clark Irish Harp”, 1942.|
|↑4||Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 5.|
|↑5||Kaiser, Pulling Strings, pp. 104-110.|
|↑6||Melville Clark, “I Played the Harp for Wilson”, Christian Science Monitor, May 19, 1945.|
|↑7||Joseph Tumulty to Wilson, cited in John Morton Blum, Joe Tumulty and the Wilson Era (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Comp., 1951), p. 176.|
|↑8||Kaiser, Pulling Strings, pp. 99-103.|
|↑9||”Lloyd George Lays Wreath On Unknown Soldier’s Tomb In Arlington Today”, Associated Press report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 26, 1923.|
|↑10||Kaiser, Pulling Strings, p. 132.|