Home, Sweet Presidential Home

Visiting the White House Is Dandy, but Other Presidents Lived Nearby

Posted October 15, 2008 at 2:13pm

On Jan. 1, 1801, John and Abigail Adams opened up the White House for a New Year’s Day reception. It wasn’t necessary to have an invitation, so Washingtonians lined up to shake the hand of the president and his wife and indulge in some refreshments.

Today, of course, it’s tricky to get even a basic tour of the White House. A request for a tour of the sitting president’s home takes six months, a background check and the green light from your Congressman.

So what do you do if you have a craving for some good presidential history? We’re in luck around Washington: The White House isn’t the only place in the area that presidents have called home. The homes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and James Madison are all just a stone’s throw or a short drive away from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Great Emancipator

Tucked behind the gates of the Armed Forces Retirement Home on a hilltop in Northwest D.C., sits President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home.

“Cottage” is a modest name for the large house that the Lincoln family called home during the summer months. Having been closed to the public for decades, the cottage was opened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a museum just last winter.

“We 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, it’s 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 his most difficult decisions during the Civil War. The Lincoln family first traveled to the home in 1862 to recover from 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 Lincoln’s presidency.

Before 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 visitors 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 Lincoln’s 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 recordings representing possible 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 wife’s 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 wrote a note to the soldier apologizing for his shortness. Ultimately, the president personally accompanied the man to retrieve his wife’s body.

Tickets to tour the house are available at $12 for adults, $5 for children and $8 for National Trust members. They are available through lincolncottage.org and should be booked several weeks in advance. The cottage is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Father of the Country

The estate that George Washington called home sits on a bank of the Potomac just 16 miles from Washington, D.C. Visitors to this historic site are given access to the house where the nation’s first president lived, the gardens he strolled through and his final resting place.

In the years following Washington’s death in 1799, the ownership of Mount Vernon — which at one time was an 8,000-acre plantation — changed hands among family members five times. But eventually the former president’s sprawling Virginia estate just proved to be too much to manage, especially as tourists started flocking to the “national shrine.”

By the 1830s, according to accounts, several columns on the piazza rotted away completely, forcing the roof to be propped up with the masts of old ships.

One woman took notice of this condition, found the “ruin and desolation of the home of Washington” unacceptable, and began a campaign to raise money to buy the property. This woman, Ann Pamela Cunningham, and her Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, eventually raised enough money and purchased the mansion and surrounding property on April 6, 1858 — 150 years ago — for $200,000.

Today, the historic site, with sprawling gardens and sweeping views of the Potomac, is the perfect stop on a sunny day. Tours include access to the grounds, mansion and outer houses, beginning with a 20-minute video telling the story of the Washington family. On weekends, the line to enter the mansion is often long. Luckily, the wait is less painful than it might be since the surrounding grounds are gorgeous.

“I can truly say I had rather be at home at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of State and the representatives of every power in Europe,” George Washington once said of the famed home.

The house, open every day of the year including Christmas, is the original one lived in by George and Martha Washington. Filled with period furniture, much of which belonged to the family, the house gives visitors a feel for what life was like in the 18th century.

For those looking to cool their heels, rocking chairs are set up on the porch overlooking the river. Visitors can take a few moments to rest and savor the view that the father of the country saw every morning.

Tickets to the estate and garden can be purchased upon arrive for $13 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and $6 for children.

The Man of the People

When visitors first lay eyes on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, it becomes easy for them to understand why the former president pushed so hard to make the United States a farming nation. With rolling hills, lines of vegetable crops and open spaces, this estate is a testament to nature’s beauty when it is left uncorrupted.

Seated on a hilltop outside Charlottesville and within sight of the University of Virginia, Monticello features garden and mansion tours every day of the year except Christmas. The estate is a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Washington, so it’s a good idea to pack a cooler and make a day out of it. The historic site features picnic tables and a snack bar for those who get hungry while touring the grounds.

Over the course of his life, Jefferson famously built up and tore down parts of Monticello as his tastes changed. The third president was a self-taught architect and based much of his design on the classical-style buildings he saw while living in France. In the end, his masterpiece consisted of 43 rooms, including two terraces and a beautiful domed room.

In addition, the writer of the Declaration of Independence was constantly adding the latest gadgets to his home. For instance, the French doors that lead to the foyer are created so that when one is pulled closed, the other moves with it, clicking the doors shut in one easy movement.

In addition to tours of the house and gardens, Monticello also offers plantation community tours that include lectures on how Jefferson’s slaves, including his famed mistress Sally Hemmings, lived. This 45-minute walking tour shows how the slaves lived and what their daily tasks were like.

Tickets to tour Jefferson’s home and gardens can be purchased upon arrival at a cost of $15 for adults and $8 for children.

Father of the Constitution

James Madison also made his home in our (extended) neighborhood: His lifelong home of Montpelier is a two-hour drive from Washington in Orange, Va.

The estate, which has been undergoing a restoration for the past four years, includes a number of attractions besides the main home. One newly refurbished site is the Madison Temple, a neoclassical dome situated so that visitors could see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance and guests on the second floor of the home could contemplate the temple from the windows.

In addition to the cemetery containing the remains of James and Dolley Madison, a second cemetery holds 38 of Montpelier’s slaves.

Nearby on the 2,650 acres of forests and gardens are a Civil War encampment site and the cabin of freedman George Gilmore.

On Oct. 19, the estate will host a “Fall Big Woods Walk” in the 200-acre old-growth forest.

Montpelier is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and tickets are $14 for adults and $7 for children and National Trust members.

Andrea Cohen contributed to this report.