Abraham Lincoln often traveled alone on horseback between the White House and the home three miles north where he and his family spent their summers.
On one of those trips in 1862, with the nation at war and Lincoln the target of numerous threats, someone shot the president’s hat clean off his head. Lincoln believed it was a mishap by some bumbling soul who harbored no malice. Others, of course, suspected something far different.
But the president had one main concern: He didn’t want Mary Todd to find out.
Such are the stories told at President Lincoln’s Cottage, a major piece of historic real estate tucked away in Northwest Washington’s Petworth neighborhood.
It’s easy to take for granted that history is abundant in the nation’s capital. But for those living on Rock Creek Church Road NW, where the cottage is located, history is right across the street.
The cottage is on the grounds of the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home, where there is a picnic area and an amazing view of the U.S. Capitol. Lincoln could see the work being done on it from that house on a hill.
Back then, this was a rural area where the Lincolns would come to escape the city’s bustle and relentless summer heat.
Tours of the cottage, which opened in 2008, start at the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, not far from the residence.
Outside the white Gothic revival-style home is a bronze statue of Lincoln and his horse. Inside is a mixture of reproductions and original elements. The doors leading to the library are original, as is the room’s wood paneling, where the “ghost lines” of old bookcases are still visible.
Though the drawing room and library were used as a bar, neon sign and all, in the 1970s and ’80s, the house has mostly been restored to its original state.
The Lincolns may have been escaping Washington, but their summer stays brought them closer to the Civil War. The graves of soldiers were nearby in what is now known as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery, and the cottage is where Lincoln spent time working on and developing the Emancipation Proclamation. The Lincolns’ upstairs bedroom has a replica of his desk. The stairs leading to that bedroom have the house’s original banister.
A “home for brave ideas” is how tour guides such as Robert A. Goffredi describe the cottage. “It was the Civil War equivalent of Camp David,” says Goffredi, a retired lawyer who ushered more than 20 people through the house on a recent Sunday afternoon.
“This is where [Lincoln] could think and refine those ideas of the Civil War,” Goffredi says.
Electronic screens are set up in some rooms to help the guides as they walk through the house and through Civil War history.
Tours are $15. Erin Carlson Mast, the cottage’s executive director, says last year 30,000 people visited the house, which is the only national monument that doesn’t receive federal operating support. It’s an independent 501c(3) public charity and runs through a cooperative agreement with the Retirement Home, which is an independent federal agency. The house is even available for private functions, including weddings. “It’s a wonderful public-private partnership,” Mast says.
There are plenty of other places to visit in the neighborhood, including bookstores and restaurants. The cottage is also less than 10 minutes away by car from Catholic University and Brookland, the ever-growing neighborhood that also has plenty of dining choices.