After almost a year of living just a few blocks from it, we finally made a trip to President Lincoln’s Cottage on the grounds of the Old Soldiers’ Home (known now as the Armed Forces Retirement Home) right in the heart of Petworth. With the plethora of free things to do in D.C., we always have a hard time ponying up the cash to pay for things with an admission fee, but we got 2 tickets to the cottage on Living Social a few months ago and finally booked our tour for last Saturday.
The cottage is where Lincoln spent a full quarter of his presidency, from about 1862-1864, mostly during the hot summer months when he would retreat to the high ground, following a path up present Georgia Avenue out of town and along Rock Creek Church up to the cottage. He would make the 30-minute horse and buggy commute to the White House each day.
In short, it was a fantastic tour chock full of information about Lincoln and D.C. in the 1860s, but to me, it highlighted how unfortunate it is that these beautiful grounds are so cut off from the DC neighborhoods surrounding it on all sides.
View Larger Map. Lincol Cottage is at dead center of this map, left of larger tower building.
Though the entire perimeter is secured, folks can at least walk through the west Upshur St. gate to the vistor’s center building — a gorgeous restored Italianate Renaissance building beautiful in its own right — and the cottage just inside that gate. (And we explored as far as we dared from the cottage after the tour, though that didn’t let us see too much of it.)
The tour, limited to about 20 people, is one of the best tours we’ve been on in DC in terms of information, presentation and quality. Which is probably indicative of the fact that this site is managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation rather than the mediocre National Park Service. It had the kind of creativity in design and engaging tour guide that you rarely see on an NPS tour. Our guide was a fantastic speaker, but the real star of the show was the overarching organization of the information in the cottage itself and the use of other media to tell the story. There was a thoroughly rehearsed script he was going through, but every so often, he would click a remote in his pocket at just a certain time and pictures or audio would display on a TV mounted in the room we were in. Or he would point it at some mysterious receiver, and audio clips of letters or the like would play over hidden speakers.
It did a good job of breaking up the tedium of listening to one person speak for long periods of time and gave some variety in how you experience the information. And it was all beautifully synched up with his rehearsed story and script, so that there was a seamless transition between the story he was telling and some reinforcing piece of audio or selection of pictures on the screen.
Unlike with other historic restored home tours, this tour shines by focusing on Lincoln, his presidency, the Civil War, and his family’s relationship to the cottage rather than filling it with questionably accurate knick-knacks or furniture that may or may not have been in the house. (Little information is known about their furniture and other interior details.)
Every room is virtually empty, and they fill it with stories instead.
Though on the library walls, after layers of paint and wallpaper were removed, the sun-scored lines and shadows from the old bookshelves are still visible. And the “new” floors from 1890 are cut away in one spot and covered with plexiglass, so you can see and walk over a section of the original floors that Lincoln walked on, which are still there under the 1890 floor.
Sadly, being allowed into the beautiful grounds was just one more reminder of the sad fact that AFRH turns its back on the neighborhood behind a fence and perimeter, walling off rarely used green space from a neighborhood that could desperately use it. (Only about 700 people live inside the massive grounds now. Meaning, each resident gets an acre or two. Wild estimation. -Wink- ) Old-time residents of Park Place or Rock Creek Church still tell stories about the western grounds facing Petworth and Park View (hence the name) being open to the neighborhood as common space for children to play before being permanently closed off in the wake of the riots in 1968. Even the nice-looking fence wasn’t enough after that, and it was capped with an incongruous chain-link and barbed wire top to keep out the drug dealers who surely wanted to play 9 holes of golf on the private course inside.
I’ve heard rumors that the barbed wire top from the fence will be removed, and our ANC has worked with the AFRH folks to trim out the decades of undergrowth that covered the ancient paved drainage ditch running just inside the fence to help with mosquitos and help beautify the border. But hopefully, as the neighborhood continues to change and the military softens its stance, we’ll see the grounds open up slowly but surely to the neighborhood as an amenity for all of us to share.