Seven-Year Restoration of Lincoln Refuge Finished

PANORAMA: During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln often sought refuge from official Washington in a 36-room retreat on the grounds of Soldier's Home, an armed forces retirement community. A seven-year, $17 million restoration of the historic space known as President Lincoln's Cottage is now complete.
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

The grieving officer who had just lost his wife in a river accident found the president sitting alone in the twilight of an August evening, with one leg thrown over the arm of a chair, cooling himself with a palm fan.

It was August 1862, and Abraham Lincoln had fled the stress of the wartime White House for the quiet of his summer getaway three miles north on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home. Surely, his visitor thought, the kindly president could help him recover his wife's body.

But Lincoln was in a sour mood and did not wish to be disturbed. "Am I to have no rest?" he reportedly snapped.

On Presidents' Day, the little-known place where Lincoln tried to escape the anguish of war and family tragedy, the Camp David of the Civil War, where he spent a quarter of his presidency and his wife once held a seance, marks its grand opening at an invitation-only ceremony after a $17 million, seven-year restoration project. It opens to the public the next day.

An 1840s country house on the grounds of what is now the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home on North Capitol Street NW, the "cottage" is believed to be the place where Lincoln thought out details of the Emancipation Proclamation. In later years it was a hospital, a dormitory, and a tavern called the "Lincoln Lounge," but in the spring of 1862 it was the place where the president and his grief-stricken wife, Mary, moved after their 11-year-old son, Willie, died, probably of typhoid.

There, Lincoln roamed the rooms in his socks and carpet slippers, recited Shakespeare and read the Bible.

There, he wandered the grounds late at night. And from there, he commuted to the White House on summer mornings after a breakfast of coffee and an egg.

The restoration involved a painstaking return of the mainly two-story, 34-room brick and stucco house to its 1860s condition.

Frank D. Milligan, director of President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home, said experts studied 22 layers of paint on the interior walls to determine which might be the original color in each room.

Reproductions of the cottage's huge, church-style front doors were installed. Window shutters were restored. The simulated gaslight fixtures were re-created based on a 1905 photograph of an upstairs room and a study of the old gas lines in the house.

The bulk of the roof was covered with Vermont purple slate, like the original, said curator and site administrator Erin A.C. Mast.

Much of the house's interior is original, from a dark oak banister -- "Lincoln's hand was on this a thousand times," Milligan said -- to the marble fireplaces where historians believe Lincoln would stand and tell stories.

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