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.