Spring/Summer 2008 | Volume 58, Issue 4
The Washington, DC, cottage where the 16th president escaped to weigh such matters as the Emancipation Proclamation has been faithfully restored
Only three miles from the White House, the house in northwest Washington, DC, offered Abraham Lincoln a refuge from the capital’s summertime heat and political pressures. The 16th president spent an estimated one-quarter of his time in office at this 34-room, brown-and-white stucco building. Now the National Trust for Historic Preservation has completed a $15 million restoration and refurbishment of the Lincoln Cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home, and the non-profit organization offers visitors an inside look at this little-known presidential dwelling.
The house was a 45-minute horse or carriage ride for the Lincolns from the White House, but director Frank D. Milligan discourages the notion that the cottage and its grounds were the Civil War equivalent of the presidential retreat at Camp David. “This isn’t a weekend getaway,” he says. “The family lived here for five months in 1862, four months in 1863 and three and a half months in 1864,” he says. “There was something about the place, a sanctuary, that gave him community and contact he needed.”
Washington businessman George W. Riggs built the house in 1842 but eventually sold it and 256 acres of surrounding land to the U.S. government, which founded a hoe for veterans there. Lincoln started using the cottage at the recommendation of his predecessor, James Buchanan. (Presidents Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur later stayed there as well.) The house and its role in Lincoln’s life fell into obscurity in the 20th century, but in 2000 President Bill Clinton designated it a National Monument. After a seven-year restoration effort, the building, located on the tree-shaded grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, opened to the public in February.
Visitors can tour rooms where Lincoln wrestled with the concept of the Emancipation Proclamation, a tentative move toward ending slavery that he considered vital for preservation of the Union. Museum galleries in the nearby Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center contain one of the copies he signed, as well as his writing instruments. (A signed copy of the 13th Amendment—abolishing slavery—is also on display.) The center’s small exhibition area illuminates the painful and often political decisions Lincoln made as Civil War threatened to tear the country apart. Modern audio-visual equipment helps contemporary viewers understand both the public figure and the complex private man.
The public can take hour-long, guided cottage tours (reservations are recommended and can be made online at www.lincolncottage.org or by calling 1-800-514-3849). Visitors may be surprised by the sparsely furnished interior—only a few reproductions of period pieces are present—but the design was deliberate. “It is ideas which guide the visitor through the Lincoln Cottage, rather than furniture and artifacts,” notes James Percoco, an award-winning teacher and historian and the author of Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments . “In such a venue people confront the centrality of Lincoln’s life, legacy, and its meaning within American and global history—the liberator of a people who has stature as a statesman beyond our borders.”