President Lincoln's Cottage
Former Annandale Student Promotes Lincoln Heritage: His toughest decisions were made here.
By: M. Callahan
First published in The ENDEAVOR News Magazine
Three miles north of the White House on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home, resides President Lincoln’s Cottage, a thirty-four room Gothic Revival country residence. Perched on the third highest point in Washington and set in a rural park, the house offered some relief from the high summer humidity and disease so prevalent in the Washington of Lincoln's day. From June to November in 1862-1864 (almost a quarter of his presidency) the President, Mary, and Tad Lincoln shifted residences. It became the Camp David of the 1860’s and the most meaningful historic site associated with his Presidency next to the White House. Nineteen carts loaded with furnishings, toys, and personal belongings from the White House accompanied the family each summer including the famous desk upon which the Emancipation Proclamation was drafted at the Cottage, and later signed at the White House. President Lincoln was quoted as saying on January 1, 1863, “If my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
Riding daily on horseback to and from the White House, the President frequently stopped to trade stories with soldiers and solicit their opinion on current issues. Many of these soldiers were wounded in recent battles and housed in military hospitals along the route. These discussions provided the President with first hand accounts that influenced the direction he set for the war. They also provided feed-back on political actions he took or planned to take, especially when it came to the issue of Emancipation. On the grounds thirty to forty burials a week took place in full view of the Lincolns. By 1862 the First Family shared the grounds with three hundred veterans as well as Company K of the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteers who had been detailed to guard the president. Everywhere they looked, the carnage of the Civil War was evident.
The Cottage was used by succeeding presidents as a summer retreat during the 19th Century to include Presidents Hayes and Arthur. By July 2000 it had been declared a National Monument, spending the next eight years in restoration. Countless layers of paint on deep wood moldings, doors, walls and coffered ceilings had to be painstakingly removed along with layers of wallpaper. Lighting had to be reinstalled using fixtures reminiscent of the period. Impressive marble mantles were cleaned, walls that were added in subsequent decades were removed, roofs replaced, and the grounds meticulously landscaped. Finally, after eight years and $17 million of donated funds, this memorable home is open to the public.
Touring the Cottage is a surprisingly intimate experience. As you progress from room to room, you grow close to the Lincoln family as though you are walking in their footsteps. You wonder how ladies in large hoop skirts navigated the narrow stairs; you welcome the breeze provided on the generous porch and though the jib windows. You listen to historic voices reading from private letters, and watch images of the household staff, friends & family. In the main Drawing Room, you gather on reproduction period furniture experiencing the proportions and appointments of the room from the perspective of a seated guest. You recognize that this is a quiet reflective space where the difficulties of State could be carefully considered. Through well trained and personable guides, and an excellent multimedia presentation, you are transported in time.
You view a family without pretension, and you are troubled with the issues of civil war, mounting death tolls, battle losses and victories. You are haunted by the legal difficulties, and the personal convictions required to enact the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. You continue to reflect for days afterwards.
Our tour invitation came from the Development Coordinator for President Lincoln’s Cottage, Alison Mitchell. Alison attended Holy Spirit School in Annandale, Paul VI High School in Fairfax, and the University of Richmond where she studied Art and Art History. Alison took up her duties just three months before the public opening of the Cottage in February 2008. She admits that prior to working at the Cottage she held a great admiration for the 16th President as well as a general, but not consuming interest in the Civil War. Now involved in this project she has developed a deep and abiding interest.
Mitchell explains that, “Standing in these rooms and hallways you can envision the Lincoln family in day to day activities. You can understand the fun Tad would have had sliding down the main banister worn smooth with use. Looking south through those large windows they would have watched the dome of the Capitol being completed along with the Washington Monument. Here, you become aware of the human role rather than the formal role of the Presidency”
They also have interactive school programs for grades K-2 where the students participate in a scavenger hunt and another for grades 3-4 where they imitate the President’s writing techniques. To make the activities more fun, they have Lincoln Hats for the students to wear and beautiful picnic grounds. Age appropriate 5th - 8th grade, 9th - 12th grade, and college level programs are also conducted with role playing Lincoln advisors debating different perspectives on when and how to end slavery.
Senior Programs and multiple rental spaces for Private and Corporate Events are available at the Cottage. Wouldn’t your company enjoy hosting a corporate dinner in Lincoln’s bedroom known as the Emancipation Room? There are large meeting spaces in the Robert H. Smith Visitor Center Atrium (100 standing), Program Room (65 seated) and Cabinet Room (16 seated), as well as space for larger groups of up to 250 on the Lawn. Tours begin at the Visitor Center with a short film and galleries filled with Lincoln memorabilia and displays that explore Life in Civil War Washington and his role as Commander-in-Chief.
The Cottage is located on the grounds of the Soldier’s Home, the Armed Forces Retirement Home with 1200 current residents. Consequently you are asked when planning a visit to make reservations online at www.lincolncottage.org or by phone at 1-800-514-3849. Tickets are $12.00 and well worth the price. All tours are guided and limited space is available. Please bring a photo ID and arrive 15 minutes prior to your tour. Directions and additional information are available at www.lincolncottage.org Enter by the Eagle Gate at Upshur Street.
For more information about this article, photographs of the Lincoln Cottage, and History articles see The ENDEAVOR News Magazine, or the History Section on this website. Reproduction of this article or photographs, in whole or in part, requires the written permission of the author.
Unless otherwise noted, the photos on this page are the courtesy of The Lincoln Cottage or taken by the author.
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