Last night I experienced the power of place in an odd way. Having seen the movie The Conspirator recently, I became intrigued again with the events surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln. I’ve been to Ford’s Theater, site of the assassination, many times, and seeing a play always results in a sense of creepy awe… being at the place where the horrific events happened so long ago. At least the theater is restored to its 1860s appearance, which makes it relatively easy to imagine that night in April 1865.
The Conspirator focuses on the story of the first woman executed by the U.S. government, charged with complicity in the plot to kill Lincoln. Mary Surratt owned a boarding house on H street where the plot was hatched, five blocks or so from Ford’s Theater. While the movie house was supposedly in the Savannah vicinity, the real house still stands. Neighborhoods change over time and what was once a residential street lined with trees is now a street lined with Chinese restaurants in Washington’s Chinatown. A little research revealed that the house is now the Wok n Roll restaurant. Yesterday a fellow history geek was visiting and we had just attended a Civil War program at the Lincoln Cottage (Lincoln’s retreat during his presidency) and had discussed the movie. We decided to cap the evening with dinner at the infamous site.
So, sitting in a modern Chinese reaturant, eating Hunan chicken, became a surreal experience as I tried to imagine the events that occured there. There are no hints of what it looked like in 1865, only a historic plaque on the front of the building, a typed description on a bulletin board inside the door, and a larger interpretive marker erected by the city on the sidewalk. The power of the place took over and I couldn’t help wondering what Mary must have felt like as detectives and police knocked on her door.
It was a fun and different history experience, with almost no interpretation, but thanks to the historic markers, enough to trigger the imagination. I suppose you could say it’s a great example of adaptive reuse. I’m thankful the house still exists and its place in history is acknowledged. D.C. is offering a variety of programming during the Civil War anniversary including toh self-guided and guided walking tours that tell the story of that tragic night. It’s definitely worth a visit, to see the narrow house and imagine the high drama of those months in 1865… the food wasn’t bad either.
Have you seen the movie or eaten at Wok n Roll? Tell about your experience.