- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

Amid the construction, the traffic and the tourists of modern downtown Washington lies a slice of unfortunate — but significant — American history.

Ford’s Theatre, the site where President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, is a stop on any thorough tour of the nation’s capital. One hundred and forty years after Lincoln’s death, tour buses tuck in behind the Hard Rock Cafe and across from the many souvenir emporiums, allowing tourists to view the fine collection of all things Lincoln.

“To learn about the Lincoln assassination in the theater adds drama to the story,” says Maricar Donato, a Washington tour-group planner who was leading a group of Nebraska eighth-graders through the museum on a recent morning. “These kids have already studied Lincoln, so to go through the theater makes it a dramatic experience.”

Lincoln was seated in the state box of the theater, watching a performance of the play “Our American Cousin,” when actor and Confederate supporter John Wilkes Booth shot him in the head on the night of April 14, 1865. Booth fled from the theater and escaped to Maryland and, eventually, the Virginia countryside, where he was cornered and shot 12 days later. Lincoln, meanwhile, was taken to the Petersen House across the street (also restored and open to the public), where he died the next morning.

A visit to the Ford’s Theatre National Historic site, located in the basement of the theater, tells the story of both men — and of America — before, during and after the assassination.

The story is told through artifacts and explanations at about two dozen kiosks in the expansive room. More than a million visitors a year file past the walls of theater tickets, Civil War-era political cartoons and weapons displays, says National Park Service ranger Jeff Leary.

“This is one of the finest Lincoln collections in the nation,” he says. “It is definitely the finest collection on the assassination itself.”

Some of the highlights of the museum include:

• The history of Ford’s Theatre, from a popular entertainment venue to an office building to its partial collapse in 1893 and its rescue and rehabilitation in the 1960s into a working theater and museum.

• Displays that explain the political climate in America leading up to Lincoln’s death. Tensions over the Civil War were, of course, running high. On display are newspapers, political items and Union and Confederate memorabilia.

• A re-creation of the box where Lincoln sat on his fateful night. There are tickets from the April 14 performance, the inner door to the theater box, the chair in which he sat, and weapons Booth carried. Most dramatic: the coat Lincoln wore.

• Displays about Booth and his eight co-conspirators — who they were, why they got involved and what happened to them. (Many were imprisoned at Fort Jefferson in Florida.) Booth’s escape route is chronicled, and some of his personal items — such as pictures of women and his appointment book — are shown. Many guns also are on display, including the carbine rifle Booth was carrying when he was cornered on April 26.

• A large exhibit about Lincoln’s funeral. There are mourning ribbons and pictures of the pallbearers along with lots of information about the funeral train’s route and stops as it headed for Lincoln’s burial in Springfield, Ill.

• Tributes to Lincoln, including sculptures, coins and paintings. A height chart shows the president’s 6-foot-4 size. Visitors can stand next to the silhouette to see how they measure up.

Upstairs, Ford’s Theatre is still an excellent place to see a show. The theater produces musicals and plays that exemplify family values and America.

“Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by Mark Twain, recently finished its spring run. “Leading Ladies,” a comedy by Washington playwright Ken Ludwig, will premiere in September, followed by Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The regional premiere of Joanna McClelland Glass’ “Trying” and the musical “Shenandoah” will round out the 2005-06 season.

When you go:

Location: Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is located at 511 10th St. NW, between E and F Streets in the District.

Hours: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Christmas Day.

Admission: Museum admission is free. Tickets are required for theater performances; prices vary.

Parking: Limited street parking is available. Several pay lots and garages are nearby. The closest Metro stops are Metro Center on the Red, Orange and Blue lines; Gallery Place/Chinatown on the Red, Yellow and Green lines; and Archives/Navy Memorial on the Orange, Blue, Yellow and Green lines.

More information: 202/426-6924 or www.nps.gov/foth.

Theater performance information and tickets: 202/347-4833 or www.fordstheatre.org.

Notes:

• Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is located in the basement of the theater where President Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. The museum houses a large collection of items pertaining to Lincoln, the assassination, Booth and the political climate during the Civil War. The site will appeal to children about age 10 through adults and American history buffs.

• The Petersen House, where Lincoln was taken after he was shot and where he died the next morning, also is open to the public. It is located directly across the street from the theater.

• The museum tour is self-guided, but rangers give talks at 15 minutes past the hour (with a break between noon and 2 p.m.).

• The museum sometimes closes when the theater upstairs has matinee performances, so checking the schedule in advance is advised.

• The site has a gift shop with an extensive collection of Lincoln books and items.

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