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.
It is furnished with original, refurbished Victorian pieces, based on visitors' recollections, he said.
The Gothic Revival-style house was built in 1842 by banker George Washington Riggs in what was then the rural northern heights overlooking the city. There was an addition in 1848. In 1851, Riggs sold the house and 256 acres to the federal government, which was seeking a place for the soldiers' home.
The retirement home still owns the cottage and has leased it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which leads the restoration project, Milligan said. President Bill Clinton declared the site a National Monument in 2000.
Milligan said tour groups will be limited to 15 people to make the visit more intimate. The site has been landscaped, and an adjacent building, which once housed the home's administrative offices, has been transformed into the state-of-the-art Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center.
"It's got everything that the Mall doesn't have," Milligan said. "It's a personalized, rural, pleasant experience. Getting people out here will be our challenge."
There will be a $12 admission fee for adults and $5 for children, Milligan said. Further information can be found at http://www.lincolncottage.org.
Both Mary Lincoln and her husband visited the cottage shortly after his inauguration in 1861, according to a 2003 history of the cottage by Matthew Pinsker. But it was not until the next year that they, along with son Tad, 9, and wagonloads of belongings, moved there for the summer.
The move came in June, four months after Willie's death, and the house subsequently became the venue for at least one seance attended by his grieving mother seeking contact with her dead child, Pinsker wrote.
More contact with death came with the proximity of the national cemetery -- the precursor to Arlington National Cemetery -- that was adjacent to the cottage grounds and rapidly filling with war casualties.
"We've looked at the stats here and we sort of think it averaged around 30 to 40 burials a day," Milligan said. "Lincoln could clearly see and hear all this."
Such things, along with the upheaval of the war, weighed on Lincoln, Milligan said, and likely prompted his irritated response to his visitor that hot night in 1862.
The officer, Col. Charles Scott, had just lost his wife in a ship collision on the Potomac River, Milligan said. The river was now off-limits, so Scott was seeking a pass to try to recover his wife's body.
The next morning, according to an account left by an official who was with Scott, the president appeared at Scott's hotel to apologize. "I was a brute last night," he said. He provided the officer a carriage to the Navy Yard, where a steamer and a mortician were waiting to recover the body.
A telling snapshot of Lincoln at this time comes from the poet Walt Whitman, who regularly saw Lincoln on the president's summer commute from the cottage to the White House.
"I see very plainly [his] dark brown face," Whitman wrote in 1863, "with the deep cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep, latent sadness in the expression."