April 14, 1865. After four bloody years the Civil War is all but over. President and Mrs. Lincoln ride to Ford’s Theatre, arriving about twenty minutes after the show has started. While they try to sneak in, it is impossible. The orchestra strikes up “Hail to the Chief” and the audience gives them a standing ovation. They settle into the presidential box to enjoy the comedy unfolding on the stage, buoyed by Lee’s recent surrender and the rays of sun finally cutting through the dark clouds of war.
Sometime after 10:15 p.m. during the third act, the audience roars with laughter when one character calls another “you sockdologizing old man-trap…” A shot is fired. Pandemonium breaks out as a man jumps to the stage. A woman shrieks “The President is shot!” America’s first presidential assassination shocks the nation and the world. The massive manhunt that ensues focuses on a celebrity of the day, actor John Wilkes Booth.
It is a moment of high drama in American history and a visitor to Washington, D.C. can study the incident at the place where it happened. Today Ford’s Theatre is restored to its 1865 appearance and administered by the National Park Service. The building recently underwent a major renovation, along with the Peterson House across the street, where Lincoln died in the early hours of the following day. Next door to the Peterson House stands the new Center for Education and Leadership, an exhibition and program space displaying more of the Park Service’s Lincoln collection.
Over the years the theatre site served many uses, beginning as a church in 1833. The present building underwent major structural change and the reality is that it’s really more of a recontruction than a restoration. I happened to gain special access during the recent renovation and stood in the presidential box and stared down at the stage, imagining Booth leaping the vertical distance to the hard floor. My reverie was interrupted by my guide explaining that none of the materials of the box are original.
In 1968 Ford’s Theatre became a working theater again and each season presents three or four shows. It is a most sobering experience to attend a play and look over at the flag-draped box, standing empty in tribute to the fallen president. Every time I attend a show there, I am slightly distracted by the looming presence of the box. It is one of those places where history is palpable and can hit a person in the face.
An excellent museum in the building’s basement showcases artifacts associated with the events of the tragic night, including the pistol that Booth used and the clothes that Lincoln wore (minus his top hat which belongs to the Smithsonian), and one of my favorite collections – the contents of his pocket that night. Other artifacts have been scattered across the country – the “death chair,” once in the Smithsonian’s collection, now belongs to the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan and the death bed is at the Chicago Historical Society.
The new Education Center across the street seeks to immerse the visitor in the aftermath of the shooting. From the room in which Lincoln died, visitors enter an elevator and climb several floors. The doors open on a dark street scene, brick pavement, and muffled street sounds. The rest of the story unfolds – the search for Booth, the funeral events and the sad train ride back to Illinois. Several computer interactives on other floors examine leadership and explore why Lincoln is considered such a great leader.
As visitors descend a spiral staircase toward the exit, they travel around a massive pile of books, all written about Lincoln. This stunning visual is a brilliant way to convey the weight of Lincoln’s legacy. The book tower leaves visitors to ponder this one man’s legacy. (time lapse video of book tower installation)
Have you been to Ford’s Theatre? How did it make you feel?
Several blocks away is a Chinese restaurant with another story related to the assassination. Read my post about Wok ‘n Roll.
Check out my post about the other Lincoln memorial.