Helping Lincoln’s Home

Posted February 5, 2003 at 2:51pm

The clouds of peeling paint hanging from a bedroom ceiling of the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home hardly evoke images of past presidential grandeur. Nor, for that matter, do the toilets sticking out from the green-tiled wall of what was once a parlor, or the tattered institutional carpeting covering the floors in many of the cottage’s 14 rooms.

If the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s $10 million renovation proceeds as planned, however, the now-empty Gothic Revival cottage would be transformed into a center of history and learning dedicated to the ultimate American unifier.

Located three miles north of the Capitol on the northern tip of the Armed Forces Retirement Home — just beyond the AFRH’s Eagle Gate entrance at the intersection of Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street Northwest — the gray, stucco structure is a model of unobtrusiveness.

But looks can be deceiving.

Behind these walls Lincoln penned lines for the Emancipation Proclamation, plotted Civil War strategy and spent hours contemplating the great Shakespearean tragedies. He also welcomed some of the most important personages of the day, including abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin and Secretary of State William Seward.

“I think this is probably the most significant presidential site still unrestored in America,” said National Trust President Richard Moe.

In 2000, the National Trust — largely at the initiative of Moe — named the home one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America. That same year, President Bill Clinton declared the 2.3-acre site a national monument, announcing a $750,000 federal matching grant from Save America’s Treasures, a public-private partnership that works to preserve sites of historic importance.

Since then, the National Trust has developed a comprehensive approach to steward the restoration and development of the property. Plans are in the works for a thorough exterior and interior renovation — with parts of the cottage returned to the period using reproduction furnishings — and a visitor and educational center. The Trust also commissioned historian Matthew Pinsker to write a book, tentatively titled “Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers’ Home,” due to be published this fall.

Lincoln’s Camp David?

The cottage, built in 1842 as a country residence for the banking titan George Riggs Jr., was sold to the U.S. government in 1851 to serve as the first home for retired soldiers. (Ironically, the legislation to establish the home was introduced by then-Sen. Jefferson Davis (D-Miss.), who would later lead the same Confederacy Lincoln would devote himself to defeating.)

On most days, from June to November of 1862 to 1864, Lincoln would make the three-mile, 20- to 30-minute horse or carriage ride from this cottage to the White House and back again. At the cottage, he and his family enjoyed a reprieve from the mud, heat and turmoil of Civil War Washington. All told, he would spend one-fourth of his presidency at the home.

The short ride was not without its risks, however. During one commute, Lincoln barely escaped a brush with death when a would-be assassin is said to have shot a hole through his famous stove-pipe hat.

According to the poet Walt Whitman, whose house stood just off the Vermont Avenue Northwest route Lincoln followed: “I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town … [at] the Soldiers’ Home. … He always has a company of twenty-five or thirty cavalry with sabers drawn and held upright over their shoulders.”

In the intervening years following Lincoln’s assassination, two other presidents — Rutherford Hayes and Chester Arthur — would rest their heads at the “Camp David of the 19th century.” President James Buchanan earlier stayed in nearby quarters on the property. And, the house would serve a variety of roles for the Armed Forces Retirement Home, ranging from an incarnation as the first female dormitory in the 1950s to a later stint as a bar and lounge.

For most of its history, the home — under the jurisdiction of the AFRH — has been supported by the 50-cent payroll deductions from active-duty service personnel, fines, forfeitures and resident’s fees that keep the AFRH afloat. However, AFRH budget cuts resulting from the military downsizing of the 1990s made outside assistance a necessity in the preservation of the cottage. In 1999, the National Trust agreed to take on a variety of restoration responsibilities.

“We just don’t have the in-house experts like the National Trust does,” said AFRH spokeswoman Jean Schaefer. “It’s one way to take care of a national treasure.”

History’s Facelift?

The undertaking, still in its early stages, aims at nothing short of a major facelift for the cottage’s estimated 11,500 square feet, said project manager Sophia Lynn.

Planned exterior improvements include a new roof and gutters, historically accurate paint and finishes, and the removal of extraneous features such as a fire escape, railings and a 1960s elevator shaft, among others.

At the moment, the trust is nearly $500,000 short of the $1.3 million cost of implementing the exterior restoration design, according to Lynn.

“It’s frightening,” said Lynn. “The exterior is deteriorating badly. … It’s not going to wait for us to get the money.”

Interior improvements will seek to balance visitor accessibility with the need to return the structure to its Lincoln-era appearance. Modern additions such as fluorescent lighting, carpeting and bathroom fixtures will be removed; badly damaged ceilings, walls and brick surfaces will be restored; and electrical and plumbing systems will receive an upgrade.

Where possible, the National Trust also hopes to reproduce period wallpaper or even a few decorative paintings, though Lynn stresses that the historic fabric of the cottage remains a “puzzle” in many cases. As such, only three of the cottage’s rooms are expected to be furnished in the style of the day, while the remainder of the rooms will feature some sort of “interpretive experience for the visitors,” Lynn said.

The visitors’ center planned for the main floor of the adjacent Sherman building may also feature a center for the study of Lincoln. Negotiations over the cost of the space — to be rented from the AFRH — are still ongoing, though the AFRH supports the National Trust’s goal of opening the cottage to the general public, said Schaefer.

“I think our prevailing philosophy is visitors are welcome as long as it’s in a manageable-sized group and that they are controlled,” Schaefer said.

Helping Hands

Despite being $8.5 million short of its nearly $10 million cost, the National Trust’s initiative received some Congressional attention last year when Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) included language in the conference report of the fiscal 2003 Defense appropriations bill voicing support for the restoration through the Defense Department’s Legacy Resources Management Program.

Currently, a Legacy grant application for $549,587 is pending, said Patrick Lally, the National Trust’s director of Congressional affairs. Members of the Illinois delegation, as well as Senate Minority Leader Thomas Daschle (D-S.D.) and Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), sent letters to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld supporting funding for the renovations.

“The burden of the physical restoration should reside with the federal government and Congress,” said Moe. “We will raise private funds to assist in operating it.”

And, while the project may still be years from completion given its funding-driven pace, the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home should get an added boost this July when Home and Garden Television begins spotlighting restoration efforts there as part of its “Restore America: Salute to Preservation” partnership with the National Trust. Moreover, the DC Heritage Tourism Coalition hopes to include the cottage in its Civil War bus tour as early as this summer, said Executive Director Kathryn Smith.

“Even before it’s done, it’s helpful to have some visitors come and start to try it and see how it goes,” Smith noted.