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Lincoln's summer home opens to public

Image: A room inside the newly renovated Lincoln's Cottage.
A room inside the newly renovated Lincoln's Cottage is seen in Washington D.C. The cottage opens formally to the public on Presidents Day. Jacquelyn Martin / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Until now, a summer cottage three miles from the White House where Abraham Lincoln paced the floors, contemplating the end of slavery, was largely unknown to the public.

Few locals knew it was still standing on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, and tourists searching for Lincoln sites in the nation's capital were far more likely to stop by the Lincoln Memorial or Ford's Theatre, where the 16th president was assassinated.

But in the late 1990s, the house was "rediscovered" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and, in 2000, declared a national monument by President Clinton. Now, after a seven-year, $15 million restoration, President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldier's Home is set to open to the public for the first time — on President's Day, Feb. 18.

"This is one of those places that is kind of hidden in plain sight, and yet it's one of the most significant historic sites," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Like other Lincoln enthusiasts, Moe had heard of the president's summer wartime retreat — the Camp David of its day, mentioned in a few history books — but thought it was long gone. Then a friend showed him the home in 1998. It was structurally sound and had housed administrative offices for the veterans' home.

Lincoln's cottage had been located on a sprawling property landscaped with trees from around the world and surrounded by farms. It was a modest, four-bedroom, two-story home, made of brick, covered with stucco. Historians say the Lincoln family used the summer home for several years of the presidency, including during the Civil War.

But until recently, little was known about what took place inside the home due to sparse information in government records. Instead, much of the available history has been pieced together from diaries, letters and newspaper accounts. Many of these details have been compiled in a 2003 book, "Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home," by historian Matthew Pinsker.

Also missing were actual furnishings from the home — or even interior pictures that would have helped curators recreate most of the 1860s decor for visitors. So curators had to make do with the few details they had, which allowed them to recreate curtains, carpet and other items. They secured some furnishings from the Civil War era and a replica of Lincoln's desk, based on the original kept at the White House.

"This is a different kind of historic house," said Frank Milligan, director of the new museum. "Don't go in there looking for the bed that Lincoln slept in."

Instead, visitors will get to know who he was as a person, Milligan said. Audio and video of actors portraying the president, first lady Mary Lincoln and their associates will recreate stories from the cottage.

The decision to emancipate the slaves is the most prominent theme at Lincoln's retreat. Some historians believe Lincoln may have written the Emancipation Proclamation here, though there's still debate.

"Our position is that he may well have written it here, but he surely thought it through here," Milligan said. "He paced these floors thinking about the right direction to go."

Lincoln's cabinet was divided on emancipation. Some advisers thought courts would decide it was unconstitutional. They debated back and forth, and political opponents met with Lincoln in private at the cottage, Milligan said.

The president ultimately pursued emancipation as a military strategy to help end the war, but he was fully aware of its significance.

"If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it," Lincoln said at the document signing.

A signed copy of the document, from a private collection in New York, will be on view at the museum's opening through April.

Students and other visitors can play the roles of rival cabinet secretaries and debate emancipation through the museum's unique multimedia room. Individual computer screens show the diaries, pictures, letters and arguments of individual secretaries to help spur the discussion, and a moderator can work with teachers to link the debate to classroom studies.

"They're getting multiple perspectives because the cabinet members really did represent all views," said Jill Sanderson, curator of education.

Lincoln lived at the cottage with wife Mary and son Tad from summer through fall from 1862 to 1864. Lincoln's older son, Robert, was away at college much of the time. Other presidents used the retreat, which was built in 1842, but usually only for a few weeks at a time.

In part, the Lincolns were seeking privacy to grieve after the death of 12-year-old son Willie, who probably had suffered from typhoid fever, Pinsker writes. It also was an escape from the hot, swampy humidity of the National Mall. The cottage, on one of the highest points in Washington, received cool breezes and provided the family with a view of the city and the Capitol dome under construction.

"I'm convinced personally that he would have stayed here year-round if he could have," Milligan said. "He didn't like the White House. We do know that. He called it the damned old house at one point."

According to Pinsker, Lincoln preferred to conduct his business at the White House — and leave it there. Unfortunately for Lincoln, the visitors found him at the cottage retreat. And the president, who was under enormous stress, lost his temper with one visitor who intruded on his personal space. But true to his nature, he apologized the next day.

Other exhibits on the hour-long guided tour at the cottage will recount the family life of the home and Lincoln's hiring of an ex-slave, Mary Dines, as a "domestic" — or servant — as well as Lincoln's daily commute on horseback to the White House, tipping his hat to poet and city resident Walt Whitman regularly as he passed by.

The commute was a risky proposition. At first Lincoln insisted on riding alone through Washington's streets and up present-day Georgia Avenue into the country to the privacy of the cottage. "It's amazing to think that a wartime president would take the same commute route every day. In retrospect, it's mind-boggling," Milligan said.

Later, Lincoln's advisers insisted on sending a guard regiment with him, according to Pinsker. About 180 troops also were assigned to guard the cottage grounds as well. The president often wandered over to the soldiers' camp on the property for long chats. Milligan says some believe he preferred their coffee to his wife's.

Despite the added security, someone shot at the president during his commute in 1864, and aides found a bullet hole through his top hat, according to Pinsker. Private John Nicholas recalled that the president wanted the incident "kept quiet," the author wrote.

Confederate leaders knew of Lincoln's route. And Lincoln's eventual assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had planned an abduction, but it was never carried out.

Curators are expecting plenty of Lincoln enthusiasts to make their way to the home, and they're hoping more documents and details about the home will be uncovered as more people hear about the site. The museum is budgeting for 45,000 visitors in its first year. Tour guides will be trained for all age levels and will be prepared to discuss the sometimes conflicting views of the Civil War.

"What we've learned to do in this business is to tell history as it happened," Moe said. "It's not always pleasant."

Prominent Lincoln historians, including Allen Guelzo, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Douglas Wilson have consulted on the project.

The goal is to eventually create a Center for the Study of the Lincoln Presidency at the site to support further research and scholarship in conjunction with sites like Ford's Theatre and the Lincoln Presidential Library in Illinois. Their first challenge, though, is to draw people to the cottage, nestled on the grounds of the veterans home in a northwest Washington neighborhood. It's a hike from the city's popular museums and memorials.

"It is off the beaten path, but I think that's one of the real values to it," Moe said. "It gets people off the National Mall ... and that's what Lincoln did. I think it will be a real destination.