During Washington’s hot, humid summers, President Lincoln and his family retreated from the White House to a hilltop residence on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home. This little-known Camp David of the Civil War era was declared a national monument by President Clinton in 2000. For the past seven years, President Lincoln’s Cottage has undergone an extensive renovation to become a museum for interpreting Lincoln’s presidency.
When it opens to the public on Tuesday on the campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, visitors may be surprised to find mostly empty rooms and just a few period antiques. No velvet ropes will prevent them from walking through the spaces where Lincoln worked on his emancipation and wartime policies, entertained visitors in his slippers and mourned the death of his son Willie.
“We took an untraditional approach in turning this house into a museum of ideas that go to the essence of Lincoln,” says Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which led the $15 million preservation project. “It’s cutting-edge in the way that it is interpreted, through the authenticity of the place rather than through a lot of artifacts, which can be distracting to the story.”
That authenticity is bolstered by a painstaking restoration of the 34-room “cottage” by a team led by Philadelphia-based RMJM Hillier. “We had to figure out the best way of isolating a brief moment in the history of the building, without allowing any layer before and after Lincoln to disappear,” preservation architect George Skarmeas says.
The house was built in 1842-43 by banker George W. Riggs as his country retreat. It was designed by John Skirving and built by William H. Degges in the latest Gothic revival style. Riggs expanded the structure before 1851, when he sold the residence and its 256 acres to the federal government. The grounds were turned into a military asylum with cottages and dormitories for disabled veterans.
Lincoln lived in the Riggs house from early summer to late autumn during 1862 through 1864 — about a quarter of his presidency. Subsequent Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester A. Arthur retreated to the cottage, which also was used as a hospital, a dormitory, a tavern and offices.
“The building has a lot of history before and after Lincoln,” preservation architect Richard Ortega says. “We took a conservative, respectful approach that wouldn’t preclude any story in the future to be told about the building. If we didn’t have the historical documentation or physical evidence, we didn’t speculate about what the house may have looked like.”
Re-creating the setting from Lincoln’s day was challenging, given that there were no original architectural drawings, few old photographs and only fleeting observations about the rooms from the president’s visitors. Reinstating the veranda where Lincoln enjoyed a panoramic view of the city, for example, took a combination of research and forensic investigations. Dismantling an existing wraparound porch unearthed evidence of the earlier veranda shown in an 1860s photograph, and this information, combined with War Department records, indicated the stairs were cast-iron, not wood. A paving stone found on the property, with holes for boot scrapers, turned out to have been at the base of the steps.
Physical evidence similarly led to restoration of the three cast-iron panels of a south-facing balcony. Remnants of stucco found behind the porch and in the basement led to an exact replica of the pebble-dash finish on the brick walls. Removal of modern roofing turned up pieces of the original slate and traces of downspouts and snow gutters that all were reinstated. When missing elements, such as decorative bargeboards under the eaves, couldn’t be found, the architects left them out instead of approximating their appearance.
Inside, more detective work led to the discovery of wood-grained doors and baseboards in several rooms. A decorative mural in the vestibule and period wall colors were found under many layers of paint. Electrical versions of gaslights, based on a 1905 photograph of the house and 1840s catalogs, were placed where old gas lines were found.
Within the ceilings, new piping and wiring was snaked between the floor joists and existing chases so as to minimize the damage to historic fabric. As modern elements were stripped from the rooms, some rare fragments of old wallpaper and floorboards were preserved under Plexiglas.
None of the furnishings from Lincoln’s day survives, and in contrast to the preserved architecture, the interior decor evidences a more speculative approach. In the parlor, Philadelphia design historian Gail Winkler installed floral chintz and lace curtains and a coconut-husk floor mat based on a written account of designs installed in 1864 by local upholsterer John Alexander, who was hired by Mary Lincoln to redecorate the cottage. A long ottoman was custom-made based on a visitor’s recollection of “a lounge in a sort of parlor which was rather scantily furnished.” Reproduction tables and Windsor chairs provide a sense of how the pine-paneled library might have been used for games and reading.
“Furnishings are only being used where they help support the story,” curator Erin Carlson Mast says. She points to an antique horsehair-covered armchair that will be used to relate a meeting between Lincoln and an Army colonel seeking to recover his wife’s drowned body from the war zone around the Potomac.
Upstairs, the bedrooms are treated as galleries with free-standing television monitors for videos devoted to Lincoln’s life. “We’re not even sure which room Lincoln slept in,” Mr. Ortega admits. In the largest space, a reproduction of Lincoln’s walnut-and-maple desk (now at the White House) will serve as a backdrop to a lesson on the Emancipation Proclamation.
Even on their tours, visitors will have to speculate how the president and his family used the house on a daily basis. Absent Victorian clutter, the barren rooms offer few clues to their habits. The emptiness, Mr. Moe says, “leaves much more to the imagination than the typical house museum.”
WHAT: President Lincoln’s Cottage
WHERE: Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street Northwest
WHEN: Monday through Saturday, hourly tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 3 p.m.
ADMISSION: Adults $12; children 6 to 12 $5; National Trust members $8
PHONE: 800/514-3849 for tickets
WEB SITE: www.lincolncottage.org