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Lincoln Home Marks Facelift

Springfield, Ill., may have the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, which opened earlier this month, but Washington is moving closer to having its own dedicated space for exploring the life of the nation’s 16th president.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which is heading up a multimillion-dollar effort to restore the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home and establish an adjacent visitor education center, on Thursday will mark the completion of the cottage’s exterior rehabilitation with a ceremony expected to draw some 300 people. Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a key Congressional supporter of the project, and historian Michael Beschloss are both scheduled to speak.

But unlike the Prairie State museum, don’t expect to see NBC newsman Tim Russert riffing on the 1860 election on the screens of a mock television control room or any latex Abes here.

“It’s the 21st century, we’ve got to find some ways to make the historic images appealing,” said project manager Sophia Lynn. “But at the moment we are not headed in that direction … philosophically [or] financially.”

Instead, Lynn said the National Trust will largely rely on “primary sources,” such as the memoirs, letters and diaries of soldiers and other Lincoln associates who visited him at the cottage and the Illinois Rail-Splitter’s own writings, to tell the story of “the private man and unseen president.”

“This is not going to be a technology-heavy experience,” said Lynn, noting that some technology such as a live feed into the cottage of its now-obstructed view of downtown Washington could be included at a later date.

The cottage, built in 1842 as a country residence for banking titan George Riggs Jr. and sold to the U.S. government in 1851 to serve as the first home for retired soldiers, is located three miles north of the Capitol on the northern edge of the Armed Forces Retirement Home at the intersection of Rock Creek Church Road and Upshur Street Northwest. It served as a quasi-Camp David for some 19th-century presidents, including Lincoln, who spent a quarter of his presidency there and drafted elements of the Emancipation Proclamation while on its premises.

About five years ago, the National Trust, which in 1999 assumed primary responsibility for the site through a cooperative agreement with the retirement home, named the cottage one of the nation’s 11 most endangered historic sites, and President Bill Clinton declared it and the surrounding 2.3-acre site a national monument.

Since then, the National Trust, drawing on a team of dozens of specialists, including historians, architects, engineers and educators, has worked to return the cottage to its Lincoln-era appearance.

Finally this month, the chain-link security fence and scaffolding, up since January 2004, came down. And on a recent Monday morning, against a backdrop of bright sun and blossoming trees, workers put the final touches on the cottage’s mahogany front door, ceramic chimney pots and cast-iron balcony. In addition to new white stucco and restored reddish-brown gingerbread-style trim, the 11,500-square-foot Gothic revival structure received a new roof, gutters and a cast-iron staircase (still under construction), among other improvements.

As Lynn surveyed the progress on the cottage’s exterior, which just two years ago had been scarred by such modern accouterments as an elevator shaft and a fire escape, she pointed to a walkway on the structure’s south facade covered by plywood.

“We’ve unearthed a 19th-century brick walkway,” she said, noting it had been hidden for more than a century. It was, she said, their most significant “underground find” to date.

Already, preliminary design and exhibit work has begun on both the cottage’s interior (only three of the rooms are expected to be furnished in the style of the day, though the remaining 11 rooms will feature some sort of interpretative experience as well as a library of Lincoln and Civil War-related books) and on a nearby two-story marble Beaux-Arts building, the former administration building for the retirement home, which will become the cottage’s visitor education center.

When completed, the 11,000-square-foot visitor center will include permanent exhibits on the soldiers’ home history, Civil War Washington and the pre-presidential Lincoln and classroom space for visiting schoolchildren. Preliminary plans are also in place for a climate-controlled museum-quality space for temporary exhibits and a gift shop, said Lynn. And a Center for the Study of the Lincoln Presidency, which could draw up to a half-dozen fellows at any given time, may also be located on the site.

The estimated 20,000 visitors per year the cottage is expected to attract when completed will gather first in the center, where a guide will “set the scene” before the tour, said Lynn. Though not officially open to the public, last year alone the monument attracted some 1,000 visitors. And earlier this month, at the National Trust’s invitation, about 30 D.C. public school students visited the site in honor of D.C. Emancipation Day.

The restoration project, expected to be completed by early 2008, is still about $6 million short of its estimated $12.1 million capital budget — though a $1 million matching grant from a private philanthropist and a $2 million Congressional request for fiscal 2006 is pending. In addition, United Technologies will announce a $260,000 grant on Thursday. The National Trust must also begin raising funds for its $13 million endowment fund, needed to support the $650,000 annual operating budget, said Lynn.

To help cut costs in the long term, the use of “green technologies” in the restoration work, such as potentially recycling the administration building’s “old ventilation system,” is also being explored, said Lynn, emphasizing that the National Trust is focused on “recycling and reusing at every opportunity that’s feasible and practical.”

Meanwhile, some particularly enthusiastic retirement home residents have also gotten into the fundraising act. A while back, they placed a collection jar in the on-site Army and Air Force Exchange Service store. In six months, residents contributed more than $1,000 toward the project, said AFRH spokeswoman Sheila Abarr. That check will be presented to the National Trust during Thursday’s ceremony.

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