The History Will Linger At Remade Ford's Theatre

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 15, 2008; Page A01

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.

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