Under Your Nose: A Closer Look at Lincoln’s Life
Cottage Opens to the Public After 7-Year Restoration
One of the great thrills of living in the capital may be knowing that the giants of American history have left their footprints in buildings all over town. [IMGCAP(1)]
Those with an interest in Abraham Lincoln should take note that one such building, his summer cottage, recently opened to the public for the first time. Tucked behind the gates of the Armed Forces Retirement Home on a hilltop in Northwest D.C., President Lincolns Cottage at the Soldiers Home opened as a museum last week after a seven-year, $15 million restoration.
[The National Trust for Historic Preservation] realized that there was no place in the country [open to the public] where Lincoln lived as president, said Frank Milligan, director of the new museum. When you think about it, its almost mind-boggling. … We realized at
the National Trust that we had an opportunity here to change that.
The cottage is the site where the Great Emancipator made some of the most difficult decisions surrounding the Civil War. The Lincoln family first traveled to the home in 1862 to grieve the loss of their son and also to escape the pressures of wartime Washington. The family spent the summer and early fall months of 1862 through 1864 in the home, representing roughly a quarter of Lincolns presidency.
Prior to its restoration, the building was used for various purposes including as a home for veterans and even as a bar called the Lincoln Lounge.
The restoration returned many original fixtures including the marble around the fireplace in the library and the stairs leading to the second floor to the cottage.
But unlike many museums, the building is not filled with furniture once used by the former commander in chief. Instead, many of the rooms are equipped with multimedia presentations attempting to show the visitor what sort of thoughts and interactions took place in the house.
What we try to do is have our visitors here feel like guests to the Lincoln home, Milligan said. This tour [of the house] is more about Lincoln, the man and what he stood for. We looked for stories that gave insight into Lincolns thoughts and not so much what it was like here, but what he talked about while visitors were here, what was important to him and for him. Those who tour the house are encouraged to sit on chairs and listen in on conversations that took place in its rooms.
In one such conversation, Lincoln snapped at a soldier who came knocking to ask permission to go on leave and retrieve his dead wifes body. The tired president said that was a decision for then-Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and wondered why the gentleman felt the need to disturb him at home. The following day, feeling remorseful, Lincoln penned a note to the soldier apologizing for his shortness. Ultimately, the president personally accompanied the man to retrieve his wifes body.
While staying at the cottage, Lincoln would ride a horse or take a carriage down what is now Georgia Avenue Northwest to the White House each morning, and he would return each evening. The president, perhaps unwisely, traveled the same route each day and was at least once stalked by his eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth.
Those intrigued by this unsettling piece of Lincolns story can travel from the cottage to other historic sites that lend insight to his ultimate assassination at Fords Theatre and the subsequent manhunt for Booth. While Fords Theatre is currently closed for renovations, other sites that were part of that fateful evening are a stones throw away from Washington.
The Surratt House in Clinton, Md., for instance, is less than half an hour away from D.C. The small red house set amid suburban sprawl marks the spot that Booth stopped to pick up a gun and other materials as he fled on the night of the assassination. At the time of Booths stop, the building, run by Mary Surratt, functioned as a tavern and boarding house.
Currently, the house and the adjacent gift shop tell the story of the Surratt family and their involvement in Lincolns ultimate demise. Surratt was later hanged for her involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln.
Twenty minutes south of the Surratt House is the Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House, which marks where Booth stopped to have a broken ankle treated after picking up his gun and supplies. He sustained the injury while leaping from Lincolns booth at Fords Theatre to the stage after shooting the president. The house, open from late March to early December, is set on a large farm in Waldorf, Md., and features the couch that Booth lay on upon his arrival as well as an original newspaper from when Lincoln was shot.
These houses, in addition to the newly opened cottage, provide a unique and thorough perspective on Lincolns character, as well as to the events that transpired upon his passing. In visiting them, history buffs can get a better understanding of all that was lost on April 14, 1865.