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In the NY Times, Edward Rothstein writes:
The departing president, James Buchanan, may have recommended this pastoral spot to Lincoln. The 34-room Gothic Revival “cottage” was built by a businessman, George W. Riggs, who, in 1851, sold it along with more than 250 acres to the United States government. It became part of a federal home for retired and disabled veterans, but, beginning in 1857, it also offered presidential refuge. After just a few months in the White House, Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, eagerly looked forward to their first retreat in 1861. “We will ride into the city every day, & can be as secluded, as we please,” she wrote.
Alas, it was not to be — the Civil War began in earnest — and when the Lincolns did come, the next summer, it was after the death of their 11-year-old son, Willie. At the same time the war dead were filling the military cemetery across the road; the wounded were being cared for in makeshift hospitals; cattle, used to feed the soldiers, grazed at the foot of the Washington Monument; and the Soldiers’ Home was no longer a place where only retired soldiers could be seen. Many were detailed here to provide security for the president. During his 45-minute horse ride from the White House, Lincoln passed tents of the Union Army, along with 4,200 escaped slaves who had set up what was called a contraband community.
The Soldiers’ Home was no longer a real retreat. Confederate forces were pressuring the capital, cannon fire was heard, and Lincoln was shot at during his commute. Yet he still came every summer — even, it seems, the night before he was assassinated — spending a total of 13 months here during his presidency.
The exhibits and guided tours follow the lead of the historian Matthew Pinsker, who says in his book “Lincoln’s Sanctuary” that it may be impossible to trace the course of Lincoln’s presidency, the development of his ideas or his views of the war without also taking into account the experiences he had here, his contacts with soldiers and former slaves, his reading aloud of Shakespeare on the cottage steps, his clear views of the cemetery and the Capitol.
This makes it all the more remarkable that with all that has been written about Lincoln, this place has played such a small role in the Lincoln cult. A few days ago a taxi driver did not know where it was, even when the contemporary institution surrounding the cottage was named: the Armed Forces Retirement Home. We are often told where Washington slept, but we know little about a place where Lincoln lived.
Mr. Pinsker pointed out that there are no official records of the Lincolns’ residency here, no documentation about which cottage they inhabited, no account of what belongings they had with them and no images of their home. Mr. Pinsker said that it is even possible that the Lincolns lived in another building at the soldiers’ home.
That is not something, of course, that the museum itself gives much credence to; in 2000, the cottage was designated a National Monument. Under the guidance of Richard Moe, president of the private, nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation, more than $15 million was raised to renovate the cottage and turn a nearby building into a visitors’ center, where a modest but elegant historical show is mounted. A visiting-exhibition space offers, with borrowed objects, an informative history of the Emancipation Proclamation (including an original signed copy), which may have been drafted here as well.
As for the house itself, the museum’s director, Frank D. Milligan, explained that few specifics are known — one witness referred to its spare furnishings — and much was altered over time. It has served as a dormitory for the Soldiers’ Home band, an infirmary, a guesthouse, a women’s dorm, a bar and lounge, and office space.
In a radical experiment the museum did not recreate the home that the Lincolns might have set up each summer; too little was documented. Instead everything was stripped away, almost to the bare walls and wood. The colors of the lowest level of paint were reproduced, and the original architectural divisions were restored (including a pine-paneled library in which pale lines mark the ghosts of old shelves). And that’s it. A few period objects provide seats and some atmosphere.
Then, because this is not a home filled with objects but a home with conceptual and biographical significance, it is treated as a kind of empty frame. The only way to see the cottage is as part of an hourlong 15-member group tour, with a guide explaining the issues that faced Lincoln during the crucial three summers that he lived here, from 1862 to 1864, while also sketching something about his character. Integrated into the tour are videos and re-creations of dialogue from documentary accounts.
In one room, for example, a single rocking chair is next to a small table. The guide sets up a scene based on an 1862 eyewitness report. Lincoln sits here, we are told, exhausted — overwhelmed by slavery debates, the war’s casualties and incessant demands — at the end of a day that offered little hope. An injured Union officer suddenly arrives, beseeching the president to help him recover his wife’s body — she died in a steamer collision — from a region closed off by the army. We hear Lincoln’s frustrated, angry voice: “Am I to have no rest? Is there no harbor or spot when or where I may escape this constant call? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this? Why do you not go to the War Office?”
It is a bit shocking. The sounds of impatience and frustration are unexpected, even if not unjustified; they undercut the reverent aura. Then we learn that the next morning Lincoln sought the man in his hotel, apologized, set the bureaucratic wheels in motion and asked him not to ever tell his children about the president’s shameful behavior.
Heard in that bare room, the story takes on additional power. It demands the same imagination as the view outside the window. The empty frame is filled.
There were still glitches on a preview tour, and over time the interaction among a guide’s narration, electronic effects and visitors’ questions is bound to become more practiced. But there is so much to understand about the Civil War and its unfolding, about Lincoln’s family life, his military and political skills, and his personality, that it also felt like an opportunity was lost for more extensive exploration using the cottage as museum space.
Right now the cottage distills the strengths and weaknesses of the house museum. Its power is the power of association, its contact with a historical presence; we literally walk in a great figure’s footsteps. But everything else must be filled in with imagination and scholarship, with objects and anecdote. I don’t think, in the long run, the visitors’ center and guided tours will suffice; the museum plans a research institute that may end up amplifying the offerings.
For now, though, the cottage, with its modest ambitions, is worth a warm welcome. In one visit I have already been led to imagine much, including Lincoln’s daily commute here during the worst months of the war; he regularly passed the poet Walt Whitman, and they would exchange bows of greeting. Whitman said he saw in the president’s eyes a “deep latent sadness.”
President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home opens to the public for tours on Tuesday at the Armed Forces Retirement Home campus in Washington; (800) 514-3849, www.lincolncottage.org.
source: straight from the NYTimes, article by Edward Rothstein on 2/14/08 www.nytimes.com