By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007
Ford's Theatre, the site of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination and one of Washington's premier tourist stops, will close today for an 18-month renovation, the National Park Service said late yesterday.
The theater, at 511 10th St. NW, will get an $8.5 million upgrade that will include its first elevator, new restrooms and renovations to the heating, air conditioning, lighting and sound systems, the Park Service said.
It will be the biggest renovation to the 144-year-old theater since it underwent restoration in the 1960s, said Park Service spokesman Bill Line, and is being done to improve access for the disabled and to enhance and modernize the theater.
Although the announcement was made with little public fanfare, Line said the Park Service has alerted tour operators that Ford's was to be closed. He noted that Petersen House, the home across the street where Lincoln died, would still be open to tourists.
The Park Service hopes the theater will reopen in November 2008. About 1 million people visit each year.
Lincoln was shot in the back of the head the evening of April 14, 1865, as he sat with his wife in a private box watching the comedy "Our American Cousin."
The assassin was the well-known actor John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer who was enraged over the South's defeat in the Civil War. The main Confederate army had surrendered five days before. Booth crept into Lincoln's box and shot him with a derringer. Lincoln was carried to the Petersen house and died the next morning at 7:22.
In addition to being a historic site, Ford's also is a working theater. Four shows are produced annually during the September-to-June theater season, said Hannah Olanoff, marketing and communications director for the Ford's Theatre Society, which puts on the performances.
"We're going to improve overall the visitor's experience," she said yesterday evening, adding that the renovations should not be intrusive. "Hopefully a lot of it will be invisible, but parts of it will be visible."
She said the society has cleared its calendar for the coming season, except for its annual holiday production of "A Christmas Carol," which will go on as usual from late November through December. It's "our annual holiday tradition," she said.
The theater is a "national treasure," Olanoff said. "And in order to preserve it, in order to keep it around for the thousands of people who come here locally and from across the country and enjoy it as a working theater, we need to take care of it.
"It's in everyone's interest to get the theater back open and in the best condition possible," she said. "This is the best plan for everyone to get the work done."
Line, the Park Service spokesman, said the assassination artifacts in the theater's basement museum will be put into storage.
The theater, which also served as an army medical museum and then a pension office, underwent a major renovation from 1964 to 1968. It reopened Jan. 21, 1968, with a dedication speech by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.