Ford's Theatre education center to bring President Lincoln's last days to life

(Sarah L. Voisin - Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the night of April 14, 1865, as President Abraham Lincoln was about to go out for the evening, two men stopped at the White House to request passes to go to Richmond and Petersburg. Lincoln paused, took pen to paper, and, probably with some pleasure, wrote a two-sentence note stating that passes were no longer necessary.

The main Confederate Army had just surrendered. The Civil War was over. "People go and return just as they did before the war," the president wrote, signing his name, "A Lincoln." Then he got into his carriage and rode to Ford's Theatre.

The simple document, believed to be the last thing he wrote before his assassination, will be part of the display at a new, $25 million Lincoln-themed Center for Education and Leadership, whose design was unveiled Monday during a briefing at the theater.

Planned for an existing 10-story building at 514 10th St. NW, across the street from the theater, the center will exhibit such things as the tools used to construct Lincoln's coffin, a handle from the coffin, what is thought to be a lock of Lincoln's hair, and the set of keys found in the pockets of his killer, John Wilkes Booth.

The center will have four floors of museum, exhibit and retail space, a giant image of Lincoln on the facade and a three-story sculpture in the lobby representing the roughly 16,000 books written about him since 1865.

The center, a project of the Ford's Theatre Society and the National Park Service, will become part of a Lincoln "campus" on 10th Street, along with the newly renovated and expanded theater and the new museum in the theater's basement. The theater and the museum reopened last year.

The entire enterprise will cost about $60 million, Ford's Theatre Society Director Paul Tetreault said Monday. He said that almost $53 million has been raised.

"We're excited," he said in the theater's board room. "We're very excited to get this started."

Work on the center is scheduled to begin next month, with opening expected in 2012.

Booth shot Lincoln in the head as the president and his wife were watching a comedy in the theater. Lincoln's body was carried across the street to the Petersen boarding house, where he died in a back bedroom the next morning.

The theater is one of Washington's most hallowed tourist sites, with almost a million visitors a year, the park service said. Some, said project adviser and presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, are "people for whom this is a shrine." Others are seeking "an experience," he said, "a kind of credible immersion in another time and another place, and, in this case, another life."

The project aims to do just that, leading visitors from the theater across the street, through the Petersen House and into the education center. There, visitors will encounter a simulated Washington street scene on the day of Lincoln's death, with the sound of news criers and tolling church bells in the background. They will enter a simulated funeral train car, bearing a flag-draped coffin. And they will be able to peer through the slats of the "burning" tobacco barn as the fleeing Booth is smoked out by his pursuers.

During the briefing Monday, officials displayed rare artifacts that they said would also be on view in the center. Along with Booth's keys were an ornate tassel used to decorate Lincoln's coffin; an official form allowing the president's body to be moved to Springfield, Ill., from New York, where it was on public view; and the note for the pass-seekers. Attached to the latter was the small, curled lock of brown hair.

"It's an incredible story," Smith said, as tourists streamed into the theater below the board room. "This story trumps, with all due respect, anything that is ever likely to appear on that stage, for sheer drama [and] controversy."

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