A Museum 100 Years in the Making
Few museums have had such a tortuous and extended history being created. President Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Within hours, the location was a crime scene and a grieving nation swore they would not let the site continue as a theater. The owner of the theater received anonymous strongly worded warnings about ever opening his business again. Before the crime scene photos had even been taken, curiosity seekers had already stripped the interior of mementos including the famous bunting and American flags that had been displayed in the President’s honor the night he attended. Those photos were destined to come in handy when it was time to recreate the interior of the theater as it was on that fateful night.
John Ford’s theater seemed doomed from the start. It was built in 1862, then a year later devastated by fire. The owner had several other theaters, but rebuilt this one even grander than before.
Lincoln had seen a performance of “Marble Heart“ starring John Wilkes Booth in November 1863, in fact had seen the actor perform several times. Lincoln enjoyed going to the theater and enthusiastically supported the arts. During trying times, it was no doubt a way to de-stress and become enveloped in another world for just a few hours. On the night he was shot, he attended a performance of a comedy called “Our American Cousin.” It was a popular play, including a long run in England. The story is of an American who goes to England to claim his inheritance from his English relatives, filled with over-the-top characteristic empty-headed aristocrats and awkward, boorish Americans. The play would certainly be entertaining. Just days prior, General Lee had surrendered to General Grant and a truce was signed at Appomattox Courthouse. The end to the terrible times of the Civil War were finally coming to an end. Lincoln was in the mood to celebrate and a comedy would be just the thing. With his wife seated beside him, President Lincoln was shot during the third act. The dying president was carried across the street to a boarding house by soldiers. He died there the next morning. A few days later, the government sent a photographer over to photograph the interior of the theater. While not exactly CSI:Washington, the photos taken in the days following the assassination proved invaluable when it came time to recreate the interior. But why should the interior need to be rebuilt? Why isn’t the original interior still in place? Politics.
Everyone had strong opinions what to do with the building. With suggestions, threats, and political scheming swirling, the government decided to purchase the building to keep it from becoming a shrine, a macabre curiosity, or continue on as a theater which would have seemed disrespectful. Signs were taken down, the stage dismantled, and rather than leaving it empty, it was converted into a three-story government office building housing the War Department’s Pension division. The building continued on with its run of bad luck, when in 1893 a large portion of a floor collapsed while under construction to add electrical lighting and 23 people perished.
Across the street at the old boarding house, the space briefly held a miniature Lincoln memorabilia collection, but it was not until the 1930s when attempts were made to create a small museum on the theater site. It was placed in the basement and the limited items on display were less than enthralling to the public.
In the 1960s, enough time had passed that the public and the government were ready to turn the site into a proper museum. The government was able to revisit those old photographs of the interior and restore the exterior and interior to much like what it was in 1865. First, three office floors had to be demolished, clearing out the interior back to a shell. Then the reconstruction could continue, now with modern electrical, heating, and plumbing all up to code. Other than the addition of modern lighting, all that behind-the-scenes work was barely noticeable as guests began to attend the theater once again. In 1970 the theater was completed and hosted the Ford Theater Gala with a multitude of politicians and celebrities in attendance. The gala celebrated the life of Abraham Lincoln and did not focus just on his tragic death. The event celebrated Lincoln’s love of the theater, no doubt which would have made him very happy.
Ford’s Theater still holds performances even to this day and is a vibrant, active theater offering educational and artistic programs, regular award-winning performances, and still holding an annual gala. To make the space more accessible, the building next door was purchased, refurbished, and connected to create new spaces without destroying the original. When you are in Washington, D.C., stop by the Ford Theater and pay homage to a man who loved to laugh, loved to attend the theater, and left this world just as his easier days lay before him. He never got the chance to enjoy retirement, play with his grandchildren, or attend another comedy. Imagine how the history of the post-Civil War reconstruction era might have looked if he had been able to finish out his final term in office. It is a sad time in our history, and it is entirely appropriate that a museum to the man sits in Washington, D.C. It may be the site of his death, but it is good knowing he was in a happy place the night he passed. If you go, go out laughing.
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