WASHINGTON - A rare corner in the life of Abraham Lincoln largely overlooked by scholars - the country cottage that he loved to commute to in three-mile horseback rides from the White House - is about to be designated by preservationists as the most endangered historic site in the nation.
The retreat, known as Anderson Cottage, where the president spent almost a quarter of his incumbency and wrote a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, will head the annual endangered list from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the nonprofit watchdog group that searches out rare buildings and neighborhoods across the country.
"This is the most important 'unknown' presidential site in America," Richard Moe, president of the trust, said of the neo-Gothic, gingerbread-trimmed cottage - now office space in a veterans retirement home - where Lincoln sought surcease from the Civil War.
In using this out-of-town hideaway, the great emancipator became the great commuter. From 1862 to 1864, Lincoln used the cottage as a pastoral, workaday sanctuary from the swampy downtown of the capital in visits from June to early November. He preferred commuting daily by horseback, often at night and often without guards until a would-be assassin shot his stovepipe hat off in August 1864 and sent him galloping for safety to the cottage down the Seventh Street pike. The hat was retrieved with a bullet hole in it.
The Camp David of the 19th century, the 14-room hilltop structure stands on the spacious grounds of the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home. The cottage, while structurally sound, has basement seepage, rotting casements, leaking radiators and antiquated wiring and is in danger of slipping further into the fringe of history, according to Moe.
"It's probably the country's most significant Lincoln site because it is the only one associated with his presidency, and it's the only major Lincoln site that has not been restored," he said while calling for careful renovation of the time-worn cottage to the state enjoyed by Lincoln and his family.
"It's remarkably intact," said Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian who suggested the cottage could ideally fill a void in the capital, which has no museum dedicated to Lincoln. "We all venerate Lincoln, but right there was the banister Lincoln gripped and the fireplace that warmed him, " said Beschloss.
Walt Whitman, ever the Lincoln eyewitness, described the mobile chief executive "coming to business" one morning at 8:30 a.m., riding tall down Vermont Avenue to the White House: "Mr. Lincoln on the saddle generally rides a good-sized, easy going gray horse, is dressed in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, etc., as the commonest man."
The Lincolns began using the cottage in their second summer in Washington, in 1862, four months after the death of their young son, Willie. The serenity of the woodsy grounds and breezy porch is still palpable despite the urban encroachment of 20th-century brick housing beyond the tree-lined grounds.
The president walked the land and, according to one record, would "talk all night" with war strategists summoned from downtown. One visitor told of Lincoln producing a map to gravely show the day's shifting news of the war, but then taking up a book of verse for the relief of some humorous stanzas.
Near the cottage, he could ascend a tower used by military semaphore signalers and enjoy a bird's-eye view of the city he regularly escaped, with the unfinished Washington Monument and the Capitol on the southern horizon.
"There were trees - oak, chestnut and beech - maple, cypress and cedar - and they gave rest and companionship," Carl Sandburg wrote in his Lincoln biography. The president gravitated to a towering copper beech tree, now 300 years old, near the cottage.
"Lincoln would bring a chair out here and think," said Moe, standing in the hushed vault-like space created by the tree's grand horizontal limbs touching the ground. "He'd climb this tree with Tad."
As reports of plots grew more frequent, Lincoln was pressed to abandon the solitude of his fond trek - aboard a horse he named "Old Abe" - and submit to escort by a company of cavalry soldiers.
from the summer house.
The stucco-trimmed cottage, named in honor of Major Robert Anderson, the officer who commanded Fort Sumter when the Confederacy rebelled, stands on the 320-acre haven, where 1,100 veterans now reside in a series of buildings, pursuing healthy retirement and, for some, precious details of Lincoln's cottage days.
"I'm really living history here," said Ray L. Colvard, an 82-year-old former high school history teacher and 20-year Navy veteran who lives on the grounds. He is a resident Lincoln fanatic, underlining each rare reference he can find to the cottage. "You very much sense Lincoln here," said Colvard, standing respectfully in the president's second-floor bedroom, now a conference room in the 158-year-old house.
Before the war, Gen. Winfield Scott, concerned about neglected veterans, used $100,000 in booty from the war with Mexico to finance the soldiers' home and buy the cottage. The main Senate champion of the idea was Jefferson Davis, later the Confederate president. Five other presidents used the cottage, but none as much as Lincoln.
"I can almost feel the anguish of that time as Lincoln waited here for some success in the war," said Colvin, treating the simple bedroom as an overlooked shrine. It is where Lincoln, in 1862, wrote the second draft of the edict that freed the slaves in Confederate states. He had hoped to time it for some hopeful turning in the war because emancipation was a controversial initiative that Cabinet members were advising against.
"Things looked darker than ever," Lincoln told a friend, the painter Francis B. Carpenter. The debacle of Bull Run saw him put aside the proclamation. "Finally came the week of the Battle of Antietam," he said of another deadly clash which Northerners claimed as a victory. "I determined to wait no longer."
There are few visitors each year to the cottage, which Moe notes has been kept structurally sound by the administrators of the soldiers' home. But fresh research and a complete interior repair are urgently needed, he said, to turn back the deterioration of basement and attic rooms, remove office dividers and recast the cottage precisely to the time and furnishings of Lincoln.
"I can't get over it," said Moe, savoring the sanctuary. "Lincoln's the most written about person in American history and yet there's virtually nothing on this place," he said, envisioning it as a Lincoln research and education center.
The cottage was no escape from the war. The battle of Fort Stephens raged two miles to the north and Lincoln rode up to view it, according to Moe, who has written a book on the Civil War. When Gen. Jubal Early was on the outskirts of Washington in his bold raid in July 1864, his troops headed near enough to the cottage for Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton to demand that Lincoln return to the White House.
Lincoln made his final visit, a happy, one-day jaunt to the cottage, on April 13, 1865, the day before he was assassinated. Beschloss noted this was at last a time of rising optimism for the president and of fresh springtime as he checked that his retreat was ready for the summer.
"The war was ending," said the historian. "And he and Mary were looking for a more peaceful and happier life."