The Curtain Rises Again

Ford’s Theatre Redo Stars Lincoln Effects

Posted February 11, 2009 at 3:58pm

The bonds between Abraham Lincoln and the nation’s capital can be seen throughout Washington, D.C. — literally. As Mayor Adrian Fenty pointed out at a press conference Wednesday morning, the 16th president’s top hat is at the American History Museum, the bullet that killed him is housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and Lincoln’s vacation home, Anderson Cottage, is where he is rumored to have written part of the Emancipation Proclamation.

For at least the next two months, D.C. residents have another relic to claim in the District’s favor: the coat Lincoln was wearing the night he was killed. The Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service are displaying the coat as

part of the grand reopening of the theater, where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in April 1865.

Fenty remarked on the city’s deep ties to Lincoln at the ribbon-cutting where the coat was unveiled. It will be on display through April 15, the anniversary of Lincoln’s death. After that, a replica will be used so as not to expose the original to damaging elements.

The coat is described in the exhibit as “the most valuable Brooks Brothers coat of all time.” Inside the garment, the words “One Country, One Destiny” are sewn, along with a spread eagle.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the large size of the article hints at Lincoln’s “great stature.”

Salazar spoke of the enduring relevance of Lincoln’s message, including the call for unity in his second inaugural speech, which “could apply to Americans today as well as in the 19th century.” He drew several comparisons between Lincoln and President Barack Obama, noting not only their Illinois roots, but also that both led the country “in a time of turmoil.”

Fenty also spoke of the continuing influence of Lincoln’s ideas in politics. After apologizing for being late to the press conference, Fenty explained that he had been at the Senate where Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and others were working on the D.C. voting rights bill. Fenty said such an action would have been in line with Lincoln’s message.

After 18 months of planning and renovations, the reopening of the theater marks what the Ford’s Theatre Society and National Park Service say will be a new era of engagement and understanding of Lincoln’s life and work. Theater director Paul Tetreault remarked that plans for a “Ford’s Theatre campus” along 10th Street Northwest are under way. It would include the renovated theater, the Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln died the morning after he was shot, and a new center for education and leadership.

The updated theater facilities include public-friendly amenities, including a lobby, concession area, gift shop and elevator access to theater seating, according to Tetreault.

Rex Tillerson, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Campaign and chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., which was the largest donor to the Ford’s Theatre restoration, said he hoped the new center would become a resource for people all over the world, but especially for Washington residents.

“I’ve been partially fascinated and inspired by Lincoln since I was a child,” he said. He said he hopes the theater encourages people to study Lincoln and “be inspired by his great lessons in leadership.”

Obama is not the only president to have been moved by Honest Abe. Salazar noted that he once sat with President George W. Bush as the former commander in chief remarked on a White House painting of Lincoln conferring with military officers during the Civil War, and wondered aloud what his mindset might have been. Salazar noted that President John F. Kennedy also admired Lincoln’s wisdom. Perhaps inevitably, however, the conversation turned back to Obama. While Salazar was speaking, rehearsal for a musical performance to be held Wednesday night was under way, and the singing drifted into the lobby.

It seemed fitting, Tetreault remarked, seemingly tongue in cheek, that it sounded like “angels were singing” as Salazar quoted both Lincoln’s and Obama’s inaugural addresses.