WASHINGTON is the city that gave art history students the term ''Washingtonian'' to describe buildings monumental in scale, oversized, often pretentiously so. But there are places where the human scale prevails, where it is possible to get a glimpse of history up close and personal. The Woodrow Wilson House on S Street, in the Embassy Row section of the capital, to which the 28th president retired in 1921, is one of those. And on a quiet afternoon in the heat of August, it was a good place to visit.
American awareness of, not to say involvement in, parts of the world that are once again problematic goes back to Wilson's presidency: the Balkans, Eastern Europe. Wilson was the president who forcefully pulled the United States onto the stage of international politics, but ultimately failed in his quest to bring the country into the League of Nations after World War I. That effort included an extraordinary cross-country tour to appeal over the heads of the isolationist Congress to the public for support of American entry into the League.
He tapped out his own speeches on a typewriter aboard his railway carriage as he traveled from one only recently tamed point in the wild West to another. He spoke virtually every day, sometimes from a text, sometimes not. The audience a president can command today by simply asking for television air time, Wilson had to build whistle stop by whistle stop.
He was beginning to win the people over when the effort of the whole thing caught up with him. The trip had to be cut short. Back in Washington, he became ill.
There ensued an awkward period when the incapacitated president clung to power - and even talked about running for a third term - supported by his wife and a few close aides. In the end it was James Cox on the Democratic ticket in 1920, and Warren Harding, the Republican, who defeated him in a landslide. The Wilsons retired to S Street. But the anniverary of Armistice Day in 1921 marked a notable vindication for the apparently defeated and broken president. President Harding had invited him to a ceremonial burial of an unknown soldier.
As August Heckscher, one of Wilson's biographers, tells it, ''What happened was as remarkable a tribute as has ever been paid to an ex-president. The procession moved down Pennsylvania Avenue in silence, the crowds awed as the caisson of the unknown soldier passed by. But when Wilson's carriage appeared, far down the line and conspicuous in its isolation, a murmur went up; then gath- ering applause rolled down the length of the avenue as the people recognized the pale face of the stricken old campaigner. In a wave of mass emotion they realized, perhaps for the first time, that he had given all but his life to the country's cause, as unstintingly as the soldier in the flag-draped coffin.''
In his portraits, Wilson seems to be looking out sourly through his pince-nez glasses, like a schoolmaster about to assign someone to detention. But to spend time in his retirement home is to glimpse a very human being.
Born before the Civil War, he became the first president to travel abroad while in office; he lived on into the era of the automobile (his beloved Pierce Arrow), movies, and baseball games on the radio. Wilson, the sometime professor, protopolicy wonk, was the embodiment of American idealism in foreign policy - an idealism that often lapses into naivete, some would say. He gave the world terms like ''open covenants, openly arrived at'' and ''self-determination.'' He helped launch new nations.
Today his old neighborhood is as full of embassies as ever, with a flag on almost every door. Newly independent countries, or countries independent once more, are spiffing up their Washington quarters. Wilson would have been happy to see all those flags.