Whether it's a secluded ranch in Crawford, Texas, a family compound in Hyannisport, Mass., or a mountain bungalow at Camp David, American presidents have long established homes and retreats beyond Pennsylvania Avenue.
Beginning in the summer of 1862, the year after the Civil War began, Abraham Lincoln and his family also had such a sanctuary: a remote four-bedroom brick-and-stucco cottage some three miles from the White House, where they lived side by side with disabled military veterans on government grounds known as the Soldiers' Home.
A seven-year, $15 million restoration project led by the National Trust for Historic Preservation has renovated the summer residence of America's 16th president. Dubbed President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, the historic site will officially open tomorrow, with public tours kicking off the next day.
The cottage served as Lincoln's family residence for a quarter of his presidency and is, say some experts, the most significant historic site, aside from the White House, directly associated with his presidency.
"Moving President Lincoln's Cottage out of the shadows and into the spotlight it deserves is one of the most exciting and rewarding things we've ever done," said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust.
The appeal of a site that's a bit off the beaten track and distinct from other tourist destinations is expected to draw thousands of visitors to the now 34-room Gothic Revival-style cottage, built in 1842.
Visitors can glean an intimate view of the personal, political and private world of a man who rose from humble beginnings in a one-room cabin in Kentucky to become one of the
country's most pivotal commanders in chief.
Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, found respite from the heat, noise and congestion of nearby Washington, and despite Lincoln's extraordinary office, sought to lead a sometimes ordinary life with their sons.
According to author Matthew Pinsker, who compiled many details about the cottage in his book Lincoln's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home, Lincoln and his wife also sought solace in the cottage after the death of their 12-year-old son, Willie, in 1862.
The main floor has a library with several timeworn copies of his favorite reading materials, including Shakespeare and Aesop's Fables. A veranda on the same floor is where Lincoln and his son Tad were said to have played checkers.
Other rooms served dual lofty purposes: The large parlor was where the president and Mrs. Lincoln entertained, but also where he plotted Union wartime strategies and met with his generals, political colleagues and members of his Cabinet. He read advisers a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 in the room, apparently to mixed reaction.
Strolling through the bright, airy house, Lincoln cottage director Frank Milligan points out such features as the original hearth in the dining room, replicas of gas lights and the buffed hardwood floors, some with original floorboards. Lincoln's furnishings were long gone and photos were not available, so curators had to re-create the mid-1800s decor from scratch. Most of the furniture is from the Civil War era and includes a replica of Lincoln's desk.
"We mixed the paint colors to match those used in Lincoln's day," he said. Yet this cottage in Northwest Washington, on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, wasn't always a historic gem.
Obscure and largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 1990s, the site and its 2.3 surrounding acres were eventually declared a national monument by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Money from Congress, the National Park Service and private donors helped fund the refurbishment.
"The home was in disrepair to a degree, and it had always been occupied," says Milligan, who holds a doctorate in American and Canadian history and has worked at museums and historic sites worldwide.
"Over the years it had lots of uses," he adds. "It was a [private] residence, it was a lounge and club; a military band had a home
here, and so did public relations people."
Today, guests will be hard-
pressed to find traces of the old adaptations, but they will find the spirit of Lincoln and those close to him, resurrected through letters, photographs and visual and audio enhancements that allow cottage visitors to "hear" the voices of the president, his wife and their guests.
Many of the stories that guides will tell are from actual encounters 19th-century visitors had while visiting the president at the cottage. During their years there, the Lincolns were remarkably accessible to the public, often entertaining invited guests and unexpected visitors day or night.
The degree to which the Lincolns lived an ordinary life -- free of the formality and security now associated with the presidency -- seems surprising in this post-Sept. 11 world. Historical records show that many of Lincoln's
guests, at the White House and at the cottage, commented on his willingness to sit and chat casually with anyone who dropped by.
It's that sense of genteel informality that organizers hope will permeate the cottage.
"We won't have the velvet ropes or anything that hinders the experience," says Milligan, explaining that visitors will tour in small groups, with expert guides who will stress the architecture and historical ambience of the home.
Nearby, the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center is in a restored 1905 building (with environmentally conscious features) just a stone's throw from the cottage. Equipped with interactive touch-screen monitors that enable guests to view diary excerpts, letters, photos and documents relating to issues Lincoln tackled, the visitor's center is geared toward a multigenerational, national and international au
dience, said site interpreter John Rudy.
"We're aiming to reach everyone from kids in the text-message generation, who don't know much about Lincoln, to major historical buffs," said Rudy, who, along with curator of education Jill Sand
erson, will sometimes don a tall, stovepipe hat to "channel" Lincoln.
A special exhibitions gallery will feature rotating displays of Lincoln-related artifacts and more. On display through April is In Pursuit of Emancipation, which includes a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the pen and inkwell Lincoln used while drafting it, and a signed copy of the 13th Amendment.
Eventually, officials plan to create a Center for the Study of the Lincoln Presidency, to support scholarly research in tandem with other sites such as the Lincoln Presidential Library in Illinois. Also onsite are a small gift shop, an outdoor amphitheater and a snack cafe.
IF YOU GO
President Lincoln's Cottage
$12; ages 6-12, $5; groups of 15 or more: $8. Reservations recommended. Tours limited to 15 people. Cafe and shop at the visitors' center.
202-829-0436 or lincolncottage.org
Cottage is on the Armed Forces Retirement Home campus in Washington. Enter at Eagle Gate at Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street Northwest. Parking is available. The closest Metro station is Georgia Avenue-Petworth. From there, walk northeast on New Hampshire Avenue Northwest. Turn right on Upshur Street Northwest. Upshur Street ends at Eagle Gate. Also, the H8 bus stops across the street from the gate.