The Other Lincoln Bedroom

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.
Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate today, was president for 1,504 days. For more than a fourth of that time, he lived not at the White House but in a 34-room cottage on a high hill three miles to the north.

In the 1860s, downtown Washington was not a healthy place to be in the noisy, sweltering summer. Lincoln's son Willie had recently died of an illness possibly caused by drinking polluted water, and the boy's mother, Mary Todd Lincoln, needed a quiet place to rest and grieve. So in June 1862 the Lincolns packed their belongings and moved, with a small household staff, to the grounds of the Soldiers' Home, a place for retired and disabled veterans.

The cottage that awaited them there had been built 20 years earlier for a rich banker. It had a wonderful view of the growing city. In the distance, the half-finished Washington Monument and a domeless capitol could be seen.

A Place to Play, Think and Plan

The Lincolns' youngest son, Tad, was almost 9 when Willie died. Tad missed his older brother terribly. At the cottage, though, he made friends among the Union soldiers on the grounds, some of whom guarded the president. Tad loved to run around in a specially made officer's uniform; the soldiers called him "3rd lieutenant."

Although the president stayed at the cottage for months at a time, he went to the White House every day to work. It was a 45-minute ride each way on horseback or by carriage. Lincoln liked being among the people and wasn't too concerned about his safety, although a sniper reportedly took a shot at him one August night in 1864. The bullet is said to have pierced his hat.

At the cottage, the Lincolns entertained lots of guests -- some were invited, others just dropped in. The president and Tad played checkers on the porch. Lincoln also enjoyed quietly reading Shakespeare and other favorite authors.

Perhaps most importantly, the cottage is where Lincoln plotted the North's strategy for fighting the Civil War against the South, and where he sorted out his ideas on when and how to end slavery.

In Lincoln's Footsteps

The cottage has never been open to the public. That will change next week, thanks to a 10-year makeover that included removing 23 layers of paint and building a visitors education center nearby.

"It's one thing to read history, but it's another thing to walk through it and touch it," Richard Moe, the head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, told visitors who got an early peek. He thinks the cottage will play a big role "in bringing history alive" for schoolchildren.

Ten-year-old Joshua Dunmore, who enjoyed a pre-opening tour with classmates from Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School in Northeast, was surprised at how big the house is and thought it might be a neat place to spend the summer.

A highlight of the field trip was wearing stovepipe hats like the one Lincoln often wore. "It made me feel important to be like Abraham Lincoln," Joshua said.

-- Marylou Tousignant

© 2008 The Washington Post Company