- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009

After an 18-month renovation, Ford’s Theatre reopens Tuesday with a more comfortable setting. The new seats, improved sightlines and brighter lighting, however, may not be noticed by patrons as they watch the premiere of a new play, “The Heavens are Hung in Black.”

While extensive, the upgrades are sensitively and invisibly integrated into the playhouse where President Lincoln was assassinated. The intimacy of the Civil War-era theater has been preserved along with the wallpapered box where Lincoln was shot in 1865.

“We tried to maintain what was already inside the theater the best we could,” says architect Robert Pruitt of ADS in Falls Church. “Patrons will see the same carpet, the same wall paint, the same trim, the same chandeliers.”

However, they won’t be seeing the real thing from Lincoln’s day. The 1863 building was remodeled and nearly destroyed over the century following the president’s death, leaving little of its original architecture to preserve.

After the tragedy, John T. Ford tried to reopen his theater, but threats to burn it down led to its closure. In 1866, the federal government stepped in to buy the building and convert it into offices for the War Department. Disaster hit in 1893 when the building’s floors collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring 68 others. The wrecked structure was then turned into a warehouse.

It languished until the 1960s when the interior was returned to its historic appearance on the night Lincoln was murdered. This renovation, completed in 1968, was largely based on crime scene images of the theater taken by Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and others.

“Forty years had passed since the last major restoration,” says theater director Paul Tetreault. “The theater was looking haggard. We needed to upgrade the building systems and interior so we could attract first-class talent and present the best American work.”

The restoration is timed to coincide with the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth this year. As part of the celebration, the theater commissioned Kansas-born playwright James Still to write the play debuting this week. “The Heavens are Hung in Black” highlights the five months of Lincoln’s life in 1862 between the death of his young son Willie and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Our 16th president would still recognize Ford’s Theatre from the street; its brick facade is the only authentic artifact left from 1863. Decorative features inside the theater, including Corinthian columns, ornamental plasterwork and ceiling mural, survive from the 1968 restoration and have been repaired and repainted.

“It’s all Disney World,” says Mr. Pruitt of the interior. “But the National Park Service [which owns the property] was adamant that we preserve it so that when patrons stepped into the theater, they wouldn’t perceive anything had changed.”

Inside the spruced-up hall, new wiring and ductwork are buried in the ceilings under the balconies and speakers are hidden behind wall panels.

The most noticeable change is the seating. Rows of uncomfortable wooden chairs have been replaced by padded, fold-up seats arranged between newly configured aisles for easier access and better views of the stage.

Another improvement is the lobby. Visitors used to buy tickets in the Star Saloon next door to the theater before lining up outside the arched doorways of the 1863 landmark. Now they are greeted by a gleaming, steel and glass marquee and a spacious entrance lobby in the Atlantic Building to the north of the theater.

Framed by painted paneling and oval-patterned terrazzo floors, the new lobby isn’t dramatic except for a cylindrical glass case displaying the Brooks Brothers topcoat worn by Lincoln the night he was killed.

Patrons now reach the auditorium from a hallway linking the lobby to the vestibule in the old theater. The former ground-level entrances to the old building will be used as exits after a performance.

The new entrance sequence is the result of connecting the theater to an adjacent building at 517 10th St. and the ground-floor space in the office building. This combination provides enough room for the lobby as well as a new box office, gift shop, restrooms and elevators.

The expansion allows the old theater to remain intact, while providing much needed amenities for patrons. The elevators connect the lobby to the parking garage under the office building, the balcony level of the auditorium and the museum in the theater’s basement. These upgrades and a ramp leading to the old theater vestibule comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

In yet another old structure at the rear of the site, dressing rooms and backstage spaces have been spruced up. The fly space above the raked stage has been remodeled with a computer-controlled rigging system for scenery. The top balcony, now off-limits to patrons, supports banks of stage lights and a well-equipped, large control booth.

Behind the booth, a conference room was carved out for board meetings and VIP events. Unfortunately, its brass chandeliers and wooden furniture are more reflective of a Holiday Inn than a Victorian parlor from Lincoln’s era.

The new theater seats aren’t authentic either, but their curving wooden backs, patterned upholstery and metal stanchions capture a period flavor. Those with obstructed views were eliminated, leaving 658 seats compared with 682 before the restoration.

Below the theater, the underground museum created as part of the 1968 renovation is being overhauled and will open in late May or June. Exhibits designed by Split Rock Studios of Minneapolis in consultation with presidential historian Richard Norton Smith will shift the focus from Lincoln’s assassination to his years in the White House.

Displays will include a train car representing Lincoln’s inaugural trip to Washington as well as the gun used by John Wilkes Booth to kill the 16th president.

The $50 million renovations of the theater and museum are only two of the attractions at the National Historic Site. Across the street, the Petersen House where Lincoln died will be the third stop in a tour beginning at the museum.

Next to the house, an educational center related to Honest Abe will be established within a 10-story building purchased in 2007 by the Ford’s Theatre Society, the nonprofit group behind the recent restoration. Remodeling of this structure at 514 10th St. into classrooms, galleries and offices will begin next year.

From these different venues, Mr. Tetreault hopes an educational campus devoted to the Lincoln presidency will emerge along the block. “With Ford’s Theatre, the museum and Petersen House, Tenth Street is truly where Lincoln’s legacy lives,” he says. “And as such, it is our obligation to bring his life to light in a memorable, enriching way.”

WHAT: Ford’s Theatre

WHERE: 511 10th St. NW

WHEN: Free public tours Feb. 12 and 16; regular timed-ticket tours start Feb. 17; daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free; a fee of $1.50 for advance tickets

PHONE: 202/638-2367 or 800/899-2367

WEB SITE: www.fordstheatre.com and click on “Tickets”

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