Inside Lincoln’s Cottage
Last week, IT got a sneak peek at the country’s newest National Monument, Lincoln’s Cottage, which is in the midst of a $15 million restoration funded by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP). Just three miles north of the White House, it was the summer residence for Lincoln and his family, and, historians surmise, the place where he first penned the Emancipation Proclamation.
The site consists of two buildings: the 34-room Cottage, where Lincoln resided, and the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, which will feature a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation at the opening of the museum. It is the first “green” renovation project that NTHP has undertaken, with a Silver LEED certification pending, and while it is still very much underway (we had to interrupt the workmen sanding the floors during our tour), the folks at the Trust promise that the restoration will be complete this February for its President’s Day opening (naturally). It’s sure to become a mecca for Lincoln admirers worldwide.
“This is a place that tells stories,” said Richard Moe, NTHP president, standing in the large atrium of the Vistor’s Center. He explained that Lincoln spent his summers at the Cottage from 1862 through 1865, often taking cartloads of furniture from the White House to furnish the rooms. It was a place where the family felt removed from the pressures of the White House (which at the time had an open-door policy), and where Mary Todd Lincoln grieved after their son Willie died. But when Lincoln stayed at the property, his cottage also stood right beside the Soldiers’ Home, a residence for disabled Civil War veterans. This gave him a daily reminder
of the war’s impact on the populace, Moe said, and was the place where Lincoln “contemplated the big ideas, and where, perhaps, he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. All told, this place adds up to the most important Lincoln site in the country, because it’s the only site that represents his presidency.”
The NTHP plans to make those big ideas the crux of the museum, offering a much more intimate approach to history (they plan to host small 15-person tours) with a focus more on Lincoln’s ideals than his artifacts (a large portion of the space will be devoted to the Emancipation Proclamation and its impact, both on Lincoln personally and the country at large). Guests will be able to fully engage in the space — allowed to sit on period furniture and peruse books from the library that Lincoln himself read. They’ll also hear from the hundreds of anecdotes that the historians have dug up about the Cottage, from the assassination attempt Lincoln narrowly avoided while returning home from the White House to his daily commute past the poet Walt Whitman, who wrote:
I see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town. He never sleeps at the White House during the hot season, but has quarters at a healthy location some three miles north of the city, the Soldier’s Home, a United States military establishment…I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.
Surrounded by so much history, we half expected the tall, top-hat wearing President to come strolling through the parlor doors. It’s a fascinating place and we’re looking forward to seeing it all come together. Learn more about the history of the Cottage at its website, and visit the NTHP blog for updates on the restoration project over the next few months.
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