A trim white house with a verandah overlooking downtown Washington, D.C., served for three summers as Abraham Lincoln’s Camp David. He and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln and their son Tad first escaped there following the death of son Willie. Much quieter than the busy streets of the nation’s capital, it was a cooler place — and it smelled better too — so the cottage on the property of the Soldier’s Home, became their summer White House.
Four presidents spent time in the cottage — though none as long or as often as the Lincolns. In the late 1800s it was swallowed up by the Soldier’s Home and became a dormitory, a tavern and in its final bureaucratic days, an office building. It fell into disrepair and its Gothic Revival charms faded.
Now on the property of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the house has been restored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The roof has been repaired, the verandah rebuilt, shutters and windows again let in the bright afternoon sun.
Inside, visitors can take a look at original plaster walls and some original wood floors. The oak-stained Georgia pine paneling in the library still bears the stripe-like marks of the book shelves.
But don’t look for the Lincolns’ dining room table, their dressers or settees. Only a few spare pieces of antique furniture hint at what happened in these rooms. The best is probably the replica of the desk where Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s in the master bedroom; the original has been moved to Lincoln’s Bedroom in the White House.
Instead of trinkets and mementoes, the museum focuses on the people who live here. Videos, interactive touch screens and wall displays relate the stories of the Lincolns’ days here in the nearby Robert H. Smith Visitor Center. Changing exhibits are designed to complement the Lincoln history.
In the house itself, audio clips relate conversations during unexpected meetings and with uninvited guests. One exhibit relates the president’s visit to Baltimore when he gave a speech on liberty — from the vantage point of a wolf and a sheep — and conflicts in the definition in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. That portion of the tour is as cerebral as it gets.
A lot of history happened here. Most significantly, perhaps, this is where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. However, he spent long hours here thinking about, discussing and strategizing how to preserve the Union. The Emancipation Proclamation was, in fact, a part of that effort.
Lincoln’s last time at the house was the day before his assassination. He didn’t stay here on that last visit. It was just a few days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House on Palm Sunday 1865. For the very first time, he rode the three miles to the house here as a president in peacetime.
That history is what is emphasized during a visit here. Lively presentations by the tour guides enhance a visit.
The house is wheelchair accessible with tour guides — and an elevator — offering assistance. Tours take nearly 90 minutes and a stop at the visitor center can last as long as an hour if you examine everything. Take a few minutes to walk the pretty bluff above downtown. The U.S. Capitol is easy to see. And maybe you can even see the Washington Monument. (I didn’t.)
© 2013 Photos and text Mary K. Tilghman