Though rowhouses long ago replaced the pastures that once surrounded President Lincoln’s Cottage, the Gothic Revival mansion is still in the middle of nowhere. The cottage stands a mile from the Georgia Ave-Petworth Metro station, so I attempted to bike there from my home in Southeast D.C. That didn’t go well. Due to faulty Google directions that would have had me scaling locked gates, I ended up walking a half-mile on the narrow shoulder of North Capitol Street, screaming in terror every time a car whizzed by. By the time I arrived at the cottage, I was a sweaty, frazzled mess.
My woes, of course, pale in comparison to President Lincoln’s. When he moved into the cottage in the summer of 1862, the Civil War was raging and the president was reeling from the recent death of his 11-year-old son Willie.
That’s according to the tour guide — let’s call her Sue — whom I met at the visitor center across the street from the cottage. To see the inside of the cottage, you have to pay $15 for a guided tour, she said. So I paid up and joined a group of 11 other tourists.
Sue led us to the massive doors of the cottage. “This isn’t really what you think of when you hear ‘cottage,’ is it?” she said.
“I thought it was going to be a log cabin,” a British woman said. Our guide explained that the log cabin where Lincoln’s parents lived is in Illinois. This mini mansion, on the other hand, was where the president escaped the oppressive summer heat of downtown D.C. It was also meant to be his personal retreat, an early Camp David where he could take a break from his demanding job.
Unfortunately, his view from the cottage was of a massive military cemetery, which was filling up with the bodies of dead Union soldiers.
“He could have witnessed 30 to 40 burials a week right from this front door,” Sue said.
Sue led us into the first room of the house, which was empty except for a stovepipe hat hung on a pegboard. Other rooms were similarly bare, with just a smattering of furniture or the odd personal effect.
“The Lincolns must have been early adopters of the KonMari decluttering method,” I said.
“We like to think of ourselves as a museum of ideas,” Sue replied, explaining that by the time preservationists got control of Lincoln’s cottage — which was used as a dorm for the adjacent Old Soldiers’ Home and even served as a bar in the 1970s and ’80s — there wasn’t much in the way of original furniture lying around. Instead of filling the cottage with reproductions, they devised a tour where guides help visitors populate the rooms using their imaginations. (Another benefit of empty rooms, I bet, is that they make it easier for the nonprofit that runs the cottage to rent it out for weddings.)
We walked onto a veranda where Sue said that on a clear day, the Lincolns had another disheartening vista: the half-finished Capitol building and the stump of the Washington Monument. Construction on both stalled due to the war, Sue said.
If that wasn’t depressing enough, a constant stream of visitors hassled the Lincolns at the cottage. At one point, a British tourist showed up at Lincoln’s doorstep and demanded a meeting, apparently for his own entertainment, Sue said. Lincoln obliged, but he didn’t bother to change out of his bedroom slippers, which the tourist apparently found shocking and a bit rude.
Then Sue launched into a story about another visitor. Gesturing to a few chairs and a table in the otherwise empty room, she set the scene: “Mr. Lincoln sits down in a rocking chair and picks up a newspaper. He has had a very long day. All he wants to do is relax. Just as he is about to do that, he hears a knock at the door. It’s Colonel Scott, and he has a favor to ask.”
A voice boomed from wall-mounted speakers.
“I was sick with fever in Virginia and my wife came from New Hampshire to care for me. We boarded a steamer. She collided with another ship. My noble wife and dozens and others drowned,” Colonel Scott — or rather, an actor playing him — said.
The officer beseeched Lincoln to help him recover his wife’s body, and another voice actor gave Lincoln’s reply.
“Am I to have no rest? Why do you follow me out here with such business as this?”
This was a refreshing moment for me. Here was Lincoln acting churlish, and reasonably so, which is a welcome break from the saintly, patient Lincoln that you usually hear about.
After sleeping on it, Lincoln sent the officer a telegram, apologizing for “being a brute” and offering his help, Sue said, to my disappointment.
Sue led us through other empty rooms and shared stories from the Lincolns’ lives with help from the disembodied voices, videos and, at one point, a movie projected onto the floor. That was pretty nifty, but my favorite part of the tour was toward the end, in the room that once served as Lincoln’s library. Here we didn’t have to use our imaginations quite so much, because the bookshelves that once lined the room had left marks on the wood-paneled walls.
“The pine walls are original. Go ahead and touch them,” Sue said. “Maybe Mr. Lincoln touched them in the same spot.”
We all pressed our hands to the walls and imagined shelves filled with Shakespeare’s plays and other books beloved by the president. It was in here, reading to his youngest son, that Lincoln was finally able to take a break from his many worries, Sue said.
As the tour wound up, I felt a little dissatisfied at not having seen more objects from the great president’s life, things that he touched and used. I suppose, however, that the cottage itself is one big artifact, a place where you can imagine walking in Lincoln’s shoes — or, even better, his bedroom slippers.
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