The History Will Linger At Remade Ford's Theatre

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008

Inside Ford's Theatre, there is nothing original: no hint of the fire that ruined the place in 1862, no trace of the actual box where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, no vestige of the forgotten catastrophe almost three decades later that killed 22 people and injured 60 others.

What's inside now dates from a 1960s renovation, theater officials say, and much of that is being transformed. The "cursed" old theater on 10th Street NW, twice wrecked by disaster and once marked by assassination, is partway through its first major renovation in 40 years.

This week, Paul R. Tetreault, the theater's producing director, provided a glimpse at the project, about two-thirds completed. The goal is to remake Ford's into the centerpiece of a state-of-the-art Lincoln campus in honor of the bicentennial of the president's birth Feb. 12.

The theater, which has been closed since last August, is now a dusty tangle of construction equipment and shiny ductwork. The box where Lincoln was shot, a 1960s reconstruction of the original, is barely visible through a forest of floor-to-ceiling scaffolding. The theater's seats are gone, and the stage is bare.

But by early next year, Ford's will have a new entrance next door, new seats, new stage equipment, new restrooms, a new air-conditioning system, elevators (for the first time), a new museum and a new lobby featuring a haunting display under glass of the blood-spotted overcoat Lincoln was wearing the night he was killed.

The new entrance, with a weather canopy and a vertical marquee reading "Ford's Theatre," will be in the Atlantic Building just north of the old theater. The old theater entrance will become the exit.

The entrance will lead to a lobby, a gift shop, box offices, concessions and the cylindrical case containing the coat, which was embroidered on the inside with the words, "One Country One Destiny."

"That will be here, showcased in this main lobby," Tetreault said. "You'll be able to see [the coat] from the outside, in the evening. You'll be able to see it when the theater's closed, 24-7. It'll be a really signature element."

The theater, owned by the federal government and managed by the National Park Service, typically draws almost a million visitors a year, including many who come to see plays. When it reopens in February, it will do so with a specially commissioned play about Lincoln's life titled "The Heavens Are Hung in Black."

The theater will hold 650 people, down from the previous capacity of 682 but with fewer obstructed-view seats. A new Lincoln education center is also planned for a building across the street. That is scheduled to open in 2010.

"Abraham Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln when he lived in Washington," Tetreault said. "That's when he became the man that we all know. Prior to that, he was a prairie lawyer and a one-term congressman."

Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, and died at 7:22 the next morning in a boarding house across the street from the theater.

Ford's Theatre was a Baptist church until it was taken over in 1861 by entrepreneur John T. Ford. The venue was destroyed by fire the night of Dec. 30, 1862, but was rebuilt and reopened in 1863.

After the assassination, Tetreault said, the theater became a gigantic crime scene, and when Ford sought to reopen for business, there was a public outcry. "It is holy ground," a newspaper at the time proclaimed, "and must not be profaned."

The government bought the theater from Ford and used it over the years as a museum and as an office and storage building.

On the morning of June 9, 1893, the building was packed with 500 government clerks, occupying several floors of jury-rigged office space, when the interior collapsed, according to a Washington Post account the next day. Scores were killed and injured, and the theater's already altered interior was destroyed.

"People thought at that time, 'This is just a cursed building,' " Tetreault said.

The government rebuilt it again -- and again used the building for storage. In the 1950s, the government decided to restore the building as a historic site and theater venue, and Ford's reopened in 1968.

Some of the exterior walls remain from the 1860s, but what is inside is all a reconstruction.

"Nothing in this space is original," Tetreault said as he stood amid the scaffolding Wednesday afternoon. Not the presidential box, not the ceiling, not the stage. "Nothing."

"Now, it was painstakingly restored," he said, based in part on what were essentially crime scene photographs of the interior taken by famed Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

"Though it is not original," Tetreault said, "there are probably 90 percent of the people that come in this theater that believe that what they're looking at is the exact theater that Abraham Lincoln was shot in, not a replica."

But even a replica can grow haggard over 40 years, Tetreault said, and officials realized that Ford's badly needed to be updated.

Last year, the theater embarked on what has become a $50 million restoration project. The federal government provided $8.9 million, and the theater is raising the rest. So far, it has raised $32 million. The D.C. government has allocated $10 million in its next budget to help with the project and various programs there.

"We have a hard date here," Tetreault said. "It is the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln in February of 2009, and this theater will be open for that."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company