- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 27, 2002

Most of the buildings connected with the Lincoln assassination still exist, to varying degrees. Visitors can tour Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, and the house where he died. The Surratt boardinghouse, where several Booth conspirators met, is nearby on H Street. The Surratt tavern is in Clinton, and Dr. Samuel Mudd's home is near Waldorf, Md.

One site, however, is long gone the Old Clubhouse, the house where Secretary of State William Henry Seward was stabbed nearly to death by Booth conspirator Lewis Paine the same night Lincoln was shot. In fact, this residence had a long and often ill-starred history before, during and after Seward's time.

The house was on the east side of Lafayette Square, at 17 Lafayette St., though shortly before the Civil War the street name was changed to Madison Place. The home was built by Commodore John Rodgers in 1831. It was three stories tall and had more than two dozen rooms. After the house became too expensive for him to maintain, Rodgers left, and it became an upscale boardinghouse for VIPs such as Sens. John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay. President Polk briefly occupied the third floor while repairs were being made at the White House. Afterward, it became the Washington Clubhouse and usually was referred to as the Old Clubhouse from that time on.

Only six years before the attempted assassination of Seward, the house was the scene of a different tragedy. On Feb. 27, 1859, Philip Barton Key (son of Francis Scott Key) was shot to death by Daniel E. Sickles, a congressman and later a Union general during the Civil War. Key had been in the habit of standing on the broad stone steps of the Old Clubhouse, exchanging all-clear signals with young Mrs. Sickles at her residence on the opposite side of the square. The wounded Key was carried into the Old Clubhouse and died there. Sickles got off by employing an early use of the temporary-insanity plea.

As for Seward, on the night of April 14, 1865, at almost the same minute that Booth was shooting Lincoln, the powerfully built Paine bullied and fought his way up to the third floor's north front bedroom and stabbed Seward. The secretary, who had been injured severely in a carriage accident, was wearing a metal neck brace, which probably saved his life. Paine later was caught and hung. After this, the place sometimes was called the Seward House.

The War Department took over the building for offices, more specifically the Commissary-general of Subsistence. This seems to have been a habit with the U.S. government back then. After Lincoln's death, Ford's Theatre was converted into an office for handling military pensions.

An article in the March 9, 1889, issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper mentioned that the Old Clubhouse had been boarded up for more than a year and had acquired a reputation for being haunted.

Later that year, the building became the home of James G. Blaine, secretary of state in the Benjamin Harrison administration. Blaine spent about $10,000 to repair and modernize his new home. During his stay there, unfortunately, Blaine endured the deaths of a son and daughter within a two-week period, then he died there on Jan. 27, 1893.

Beginning in December 1894, the Old Clubhouse finally was torn down. The Lafayette Square Opera House was built on the site and opened Sept. 30, 1895. During the first few days of the demolition, souvenir hunters swarmed over the site. One collector cut up an inch or two of bloodstained wood from the third floor, supposedly caused by Seward's wounds decades earlier. However, the stained wood was not from the room where Seward had been attacked. After Paine had fled, Seward somehow had reached another room, where he had cleaned his wounds at a washstand.

In 1905, the building was renamed the Belasco Theatre. It, too, is gone. It was torn down in 1964. On the historic site now is a massive brick building, the Howard T. Markey National Courts Building. No historic sign or plaque marks the spot of the Old Clubhouse.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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