Ford’s Theatre to open education and leadership center

February 4, 2012

More than 750,000 people visit Ford’s Theatre annually to ponder Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — Booth’s single shot and histrionic leap to the stage, the mortally wounded president’s death across the street at a boarding house, where Lincoln was carried after the shooting.

New dimensions to that story will be added at Ford’s with the opening of the $25 million Center for Education and Leadership this month. Situated in a dramatically refurbished 10-story office building directly across the street from the fabled theater and next door to the house where he died, the center will feature expanded museum and education spaces.

The new exhibit goes beyond Lincoln’s assassination and tracks his funeral, legacy and the evolution from American liberator to pop icon, memorialized in everything from marble monuments to disguise kits and trading cards. The museum showcases such items as Booth’s saddle as well as a video that shows images of him in modern films.

“That’s the biggest change,” says presidential scholar and Lincoln historian Richard Norton Smith, who helped plan the new center as well as the redesigned museum beneath the theater, which opened in 2009. “People used to be exposed to a fairly narrow slice of history, with a clear-cut ending. Now the whole package is not about endings. It literally is a story that is unfinished, and in some ways is reinterpreted by each generation.”

New “centers” are the mode in Washington — the Harman Center for the Arts, the Mead Center for American Theater (a.k.a. Arena Stage) — and the ribbon-cutting of Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership on Wednesday, with timed entry tours for the public beginning Feb. 21, will complete a $60 million re-visioning. The annual slate of theater productions and the cautiously preserved and displayed historic site, managed by the National Park Service, have long operated without much integration. The new campus, created by Ford’s Theatre Society in coordination with the Park Service, aims for greater harmony.


The 34-foot tower of Lincoln books within the lobby of the new Center for Education and Leadership at Ford's Theatre. (Maxwell Mackenzie/Ford's Theatre)

“This is redefining who we are,” says Ford’s Director Paul R. Tetrault. The theater is creating more Lincoln connections in works as diverse as the recent musical “Parade” (about the 1915 anti-Semitic lynching in Georgia of Leo Frank) or in the current premiere Necessary Sacrifices ,” dramatizing meetings between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. (This spring, the troupe will produce the popular musical “1776” — not strictly Lincoln, but in the ballpark.)

Meantime, the historical displays have grown more theatrical. The glass facade of the new center features a giant image of Lincoln’s face staring across 10th Street at the theater. Videos by the History Channel animate the museums on both sides of the street. The exhibits in the new center feature touch-screen displays and interactive elements to go with the artifacts under glass.

Tetrault credits current board Chairman Wayne R. Reynolds with broaching the idea of an expanded, more comprehensive approach. Tetrault’s initial response was a wary “Hold on!” He had been hired to replace the late Frankie Hewitt, who ran Ford’s as a working theater since its reopening in 1968. Tetrault’s expertise was stage-related; he came to Washington after a decade as the managing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, which produced a number of notable shows on his watch.

But Tetrault says it didn’t take long for him to embrace the broadened job description. “It’s a more holistic way of looking at the theater,” he reasons. Tetrault also recognized that Ford’s was unlikely to become a national leader strictly as a theater or as a museum. But in the combination, Tetrault says, “No one does what we do.”

Ford’s was already renting some upper floors of 514 10th St. for administrative uses when the Theatre Society purchased the building for $9 million in 2007. Travis Wood, an exhibit designer for Split Rock Studios — the Minnesota-based design and construction firm recommended to Tetrault by Smith — describes the 1923 space as “not your typical exhibit space,” says Wood, whose firm has created exhibits for museums and park visitors centers across the country. “But the location is simply perfect.”

The front of the new center not only features the Lincoln-haunted glass facade, but also a sculptural tower of Lincoln-themed books rising up through the atrium and encircled by the spiral staircase that will guide visitors from floor to floor. The colorful tower features nearly 7,000 aluminum facsimiles of more than 200 titles. It’s a mini-monument to the continuing cultural fascination with Honest Abe; when lighted at night, it figures to be an arresting sight for theatergoers at intermission across the street.

Visitors will be channeled through the Peterson House to the fourth floor (via elevator) of the new center. Permanent exhibits on the assassination’s aftermath and Lincoln’s legacy occupy the fourth and third floors; the second floor is being billed as the “leadership gallery,” for talks and events. The first floor will be a gift shop (augmenting the pair of gift shops in Ford’s itself).

Administrative and production offices are already humming in the top floors, and education gets its space in the middle. Tetrault notes that Ford’s did not have an education staffer when he arrived in 2004; now it has a director and a department of five. The new classrooms and studio spaces will accommodate education programs already in place, and one floor will be equipped with high-tech facilities for “distance learning” — connecting with teachers and students across the country and potentially around the world.

Tetrault says $53 million of the planned $60 million project has been raised. The remainder is targeted for endowment; the construction is paid for. Ford’s operating budget has roughly doubled during Tetrault’s tenure, with the theater raising more money and selling more tickets as it expands its mission. .

The success of the new center, Tetrault suggests, won’t necessarily be measured by increased traffic.

“Throughout this whole process, we have always said, ‘How do we improve the visitor experience?’ ” Tetrault says. “That has been our mantra. We are less interested in the number simply increasing than in the experience being better.”

How to create a new experience in a city (and on a site) already rich with Lincoln was a test. Wood feels the fresh niche is the focus on the presidency, rather than on a single event. And Smith, illustrating the center’s emphasis on legacy and its sense of Lincoln in Washington, points to a new History Channel film in the permanent exhibit nodding to the long appropriation of the Lincoln Memorial as America’s great symbolic rallying spot.

“That itself is a metaphor for the many Lincolns,” Smith says. “We need Lincoln on our side.”

Ford’s Center for Education and Leadership

Presidents’ Day Open House: Feb. 20 from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. This free full day of programming at the theater and the Center for Education and Leadership features talks and performances. Tickets are available beginning at 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 20.

Presidential Leadership Panel: Monday, Feb. 20, at 7 p.m. Ford’s Theatre. This discussion features Chris Matthews and writer Harold Holzer discussing presidential leadership. Tickets are free and will become available for reservation. 511 and 514 10th St. NW. 202-347-4833. www.fords.org.

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