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A Major Overhaul at Ford's Theatre National Historic Site Raises a Few Eyebrows

Ford's Theatre.

Ford's Theatre. Photo by plutor va Flickr

Ford's Theatre National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. is completing major renovations just in time for the celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial next month. Part of an ambitious $50 million project to create an expanded "Lincoln Campus," the scope of the work in the theatre itself has generated praise in some quarters and questions in others.

The reason for both reactions might be found in a description of the building in a recent press release from the non-profit Ford's Theatre Society:

Since its reopening in 1968, more than a hundred years after the April 14, 1865, assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Ford's Theatre has been one of the most visited sites in the nation's capital. Ford's Theatre has enthralled visitors because of its unique place in United States history.

Most American's would agree that the site's dramatic connection with Lincoln makes it a special place, so it's no surprise that the following description of the current renovations would raise a few eyebrows:

When the theatre reopens, visitors from across the nation and around the world will experience conveniences and luxuries previously not available at the theatre. These include: new seats; upgraded sound and lighting systems; improved heating and air conditioning systems; renovated restrooms; enhanced accessibility with elevators to the various levels; a spacious new lobby with concessions and an entrance to the theatre; a new "parlor" for special events; and updated stage capabilities for casts and crews. These upgrades will make the theatre more audience-friendly and will enhance accessibility.

There's little doubt Ford's Theatre was in need of work: facilities on multiple floors had no handicap access, and the crowded basement museum had space to display only a small portion of an extensive collection of Lincoln Memorabilia. Visitors waiting for doors to open for tours or performances were stuck on the sidewalk in inclement weather.

But, wait a minute, you may ask. Should "conveniences and luxuries" be considerations in an important historic building, especially one owned by the National Park Service?

In this case, part of the answer may be found in the checkered and sometimes dark history of the building itself.

In 1859, John T. Ford purchased a building originally constructed in 1833-34 as a house of worship by the First Baptist Church of Washington. He converted it to a theatre, which opened in 1861. After further renovations, it reopened in 1862 as "Ford's Athenaeum," but it had a short run—the building burned later that year.

A larger brick structure was constructed and opened in 1863; the new Ford's Theatre was described as "one of the finest theatres in the country." Following Lincoln's tragic death on the night of April 14, 1865, Secretary of War Stanton ordered guards to be posted at the building, and future dramatic productions were canceled.

Attempts by Ford later that year to reopen the theatre aroused such public indignation that the War Department ordered it closed. Ford threatened legal action, and the building was then leased and later purchased by the federal government. The ornate woodwork of the stage and balconies was removed, and the building was divided into three floors and converted to office and storage space.

In 1893 a second tragedy occurred when excavation in the basement caused all three floors to collapse, resulting in 22 deaths and 68 injuries. The interior was rebuilt yet another time and the building was used for storage space. The Lincoln Museum opened in part of the building in 1931, and the structure was transferred to the National Park Service in June 1933.

So…by the time the NPS finally acquired the building, little was left of the original structure except the exterior walls.

Interest in returning the building to its appearance as of the night of Lincoln's death didn't come to fruition until 1968, when Ford's Theatre was reopened to the public. According to a NPS publication, the furnishings were:

… either original items or true reproductions based on contemporary photographs, sketches, and drawings, newspaper articles, official reports, and samples of wallpaper and curtain material from museum collections. Except for the original crimson damask sofa, the furniture in the Presidential box was duplicated especially for the restoration. The flags displayed across the front of the box are also reproductions, but the framed engraving of George Washington is the original used on the night of the assassination.

In addition to public tours, it was deemed appropriate to use the restored Ford's Theatre as a venue for live stage productions. I'd certainly agree this is a function better handled by an organization other than the NPS. The result was creation of the Ford's Theatre Society, which is described on its website as:

a not-for-profit corporation created to produce live entertainment on Ford's historic stage and offer educational opportunities for the general public.

Ford's Theatre's mission is to celebrate the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and to explore the American experience through theatre and education. The Ford's Theatre Society works to present the Theatre's nearly one million visitors each year with a high quality historic and cultural experience.

The park's current designation as Ford's Theatre National Historic Site dates to 1970, when two sites were combined into the present unit: Ford's Theatre and the Petersen House across the street from the theater, where Lincoln was carried following the shooting. It was known in previous years by a more descriptive name: The House Where Lincoln Died. Containing 0.29 acres, the site may be a contender for the highest number of visits per acre in the National Park System.

One former NPS employee has described the version of Ford's Theatre viewed by millions of visitors since 1968 as a "replica." In today's cyber-vocabulary, perhaps it's not a stretch to describe it as Ford's Theater 5.0.

Does the above background color your opinion about further modifications of the building? How many future visitors will know the difference… or care?

Anyone who has visited the theatre in recent years will notice some obvious changes after next month's reopening. Here's an overview of what to expect for Ford's Theatre 6.0:

The end result of the $50 million project will an expanded "Lincoln campus" which will include not only the two park-owned structures, but also other buildings on both sides of 10th Street N.W. to be managed by the non-profit Ford's Theatre Society. To most visitors, the technicalities of ownership or management won't be apparent.

Phase one includes the work at Ford's Theatre itself. Lincoln's box reportedly "remains mostly unchanged" and newly redesigned museum, located in the basement of Ford's Theatre, will include interactive, self-guided exhibits.

Perhaps the more noticeable change in the theatre will be replacement of the seats—described by some as the most uncomfortable in Washington. The design of the new padded versions is said to be based upon seats used in Ford's Theatre in Baltimore during the 1860s.

An adjoining, non-park building will house many of the "conveniences and luxuries" alluded to earlier, including the new lobby, gift shop and concessions area, a parlor for special events, and other features.

The second phase, scheduled for completion in 2010, includes renovation of an office building across the street from the theatre, adjacent to the Petersen House. Dubbed the Center for Education and Leadership, it will include exhibits on Lincoln's presidency, and feature "artifacts, interactive exhibits …, classrooms, workshops, forums, seminars, performances and much more."

This is an ambitious—and expensive—effort. In today's world, competition for tax dollars for projects throughout the National Park System is intense, and will only become more so. One answer has been the use of private funds, usually funneled through various non-profit partnerships such as the Ford's Theatre Society.

There's no question the Society has been an effective fund-raiser. Of the projected $50 million cost for this project, the National Park Service contributed $8.9 million, the District of Columbia about $10 million. The remainder is coming from private donations.

If you're interested in having a first-hand look at the changes, you won't have long to wait.

Ford's Theatre reopens as part of the big celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial in February 2009. You'll find details about upcoming events planned for Ford's Theatre here.

Public tours of the renovated theatre will resume on February 17, and to shorten lines and wait times, a timed entry system will be used. You'll find more information about those tickets here, and I'd suggest you check ahead of a visit to avoid disappointment.

One final note for the spelling bee champions among our readers: both the park and the Society use the "theatre" variant of the word "theater," so for the sake of consistency, I've followed their lead in this story. This site is, after all, largely about drama.


Thank you for another excellent article. Your reporting will surely help folks navigate a site that used to be somewhat visitor-unfriendly. I'm eager to return there and judge the experience for myself. I've sat through performances in those old chairs and they are indeed extremely uncomfortable!

I lived in the Washington, DC area from 2000-2005, and during a small portion of that time period I worked for an NPS partner at Ford's Theatre NHS. It was an incredible place to work, my interactions with visitors were never boring, the days never long (at least during the Spring and Summer months!) The diversity of visitors to Ford's Theatre NHS is rarely matched in other parks across the country, such is the national and international draw of the Lincoln legacy. (And of John Wilkes Booth as well: I was astonished at how many visitors couldn't wait to see the gun that Booth used to assassinate Lincoln, not out of reverence for a fallen president, but out of glee to see the weapon that killed an "enemy" of their ancestors.)

This article brings to light some important points about Ford's Theatre that were always a challenge for visitors to deal with.

Until I worked there myself I did not know that the current performance space was in fact a reconstruction. The majority of visitors I interacted with on any given day didn't know this either, but some did indeed care. I wondered why the Park Rangers did not include this piece of information in their talks, but I quickly learned that I could easily have a negative effect on a person's visit by "educating" them about the history of the structure in which they were standing. This piece of information was best left to self discovery.

Another challenge was access to the theatre space itself. Because the reconstructed performance space is used by a professional theatre company, rehearsals and performances often meant the theatre space itself would be closed to visitors. While this fact was of course advertised, many visitors were not aware of this logistical detail. Even repeat visitors, returning for a second or third or fourth time, were once again not able to enter the theatre space to see the presidential box because they had not realized that the professional company's schedule would have an effect on ability to see the space.
The new ticketing system not only solves the problem of long lines and wait times, but solves the availability problem as well. The ticketing schedule posted on the FTS website clearly outlines when the performance space itself will be available for viewing and ranger talks. This is a great improvement from a visitor satisfaction standpoint I think. Though surely there will still be some disappointment if the space is unavailable on any given day, proactive management of the process can only help.

Thanks again for the excellent article, and for providing the forum to add additional comments!


For the NPS/history/architecture buffs out there, I have an excellent out-of-print publication to recommend.
I picked up a used copy a few years ago at the suggestion of one of the incredibly knowledgeable interpretive rangers on duty at FTNHS.
"Restoration of Ford's Theatre", Historic Structure Report, by George J. Olszewski, Historian for the National Capital Region at the time the report was published, 1963.
It contains an incredible wealth of photographs from 1865, 1893, and the 1960s, ephemera, architectural drawings, a full listing of productions that took place at the theatre... just a great resource for anyone looking to fill out their Lincoln collection.

Warren Z-

Thanks for the comment, and the perspective from someone with first-hand experience at the site. The tip on the publication will be appreciated by history buffs.

Superb article! I'm confused though, where is the Derringer used to assisinate Lincoln? Last time I saw it, it was in the Smithsonian. Few years ago --- like forty(?).

Articles like this make me want to load up the 4X4 and hit the road to head for civilization. Presently reside in the Kommunist Republik of Kalifornia, but am a native Texian.

The collection on exhibit in the basement of Ford's Theatre in 2005 (when I left my position there) was a mixture of artifacts owned by the NPS, and those on loan from the Smithsonian; this collection included the Derringer. I would imagine it will be part of the newly refurbished museum at the theatre.

Well done, Jim. This article was an excellent read. Non-profits and NPS units have interesting relationships.

Executive Director,
Crater Lake Institute
Robert Mutch Photography,

I understand the fears regarding restoration of historic sites. I've seen a lot of bad restorations and gift-shop add-ons that destroy the character of a historic building so badly it hurts. But I've also seen good ones.

As long as they hire a qualified designer well-versed in period architecture, an architect who understands how to merge structures from different eras, and a builders who are contractually obligated to preserve the historic facades of the original buildings, it can work. You can add in modern conveniences (like well-padded chairs adequate for the expanded 21st-century American buttock) without degrading the character of the original, and trained, qualified professionals know how to do that.

If they simply go with the lowest bidder regardless of qualifications or experience, then it's doomed.


My travels through the National Park System:

Thanks for the eye-opening article...

Maybe the next project could be widening Skyline Drive to a six lane freeway, leveling some of those damned hills that slow us down, and finally get some MacDonald's and WalMarts up there.

And how 'bout getting Mount Vernon turned into a one-story ranch style home with no steps and a drive through for viewing GW's crypt; "these upgrades will make the site more audience-friendly and will enhance accessibility" also.

...and oh!...Grand Canyon.........

Warren Z -

Thanks for taking the time to address my sarcastic comments. The article struck a sour note in my head, and the more I mull it over, the more I don't think I have a solid defensible position on it.

I do understand that there wasn't much left of the building, as Lincoln saw it, by the 30s. I also remember the very careful (I think) restoration of the 60s, and I had the pleasure to see it in the early 70s and again in the mid 90s.

I guess, in a more general sense, as I get older, I see more and more of the chipping away of the physical and cultural artifacts of our history to make it more comfortable, more modern, more politically correct for today's visitors. I suppose a lot of it is necessary, and please understand I'm not talking only about the NPS here. I dislike seeing the 'modern world' changing our actual past.

I know things can't just be left to rot, but I don't like them changed, either. I think I favor stabilization and a goal toward keeping/making any site accurate to the period that makes it 'historic' in the first place. I also realize that money, both to restore and maintain, is a very real problem.

I suppose the question you're going to ask me is where do I think it starts, and how far should we go. Of course the more I think about it, I realize that I don't know; I know we need roads along the rim of Grand Canyon, even though they weren't there when Powell floated through. I know we need lights in caverns and boardwalks to geysers, but I wonder why, if you want to experience Ford's Theatre as President Lincoln did, then why can't you sit in an uncomfortable seat and sweat, and be quiet enough to hear the voices from the stage? If you want a comfy seat and a/c, there are a million places you could be, or you could stay at home in the recliner and watch a Lincoln bio on your plasma tv. The more it is updated, the less it is the 1865 Theatre. I mean, jeez, it's Ford's frikkin Theatre! If I want to see Pueblo Bonito I might have to perspire, and if I want to see the Everglades, I might get mosquito bites. The uniqueness of NPS sites is why I want to visit, and why they're NPS sites in the first place.

I live a few hours from Niagara Falls, and every time I'm there, I wonder what it would look like had the US and Canada had the foresight and courage to make the area into National or International Park(s). One of the greatest natural wonders in N. America, it's a schlocky, garish tourist trap filled with souvenir shops full of Chinese crap, high rise casinos, dinosaur mini-golf, horror museums, and a modern $7million multi-media special effects computer controlled recreation of The Falls...housed at the very lip of The Falls! Just think...for only $15@, you can stand in line for hours (under cover to protect from the actual mist coming off The Falls) to enter into a brand new tourist attraction to see a 21st century re-creation, narrated by an animated beaver, of what The Falls looked like before tourist attractions spoiled it...and then you get sprayed by fake mist and everybody laughs and screams. Pardon my French,

As far as the ADA goes, believe it or not I'm conflicted on that also. I know it's the law. I'm married to a handicapped individual in a wheelchair, but I feel there are some places that she will just never be able to go. I don't feel there should be obvious structural changes to historic buildings. A building built in the 18th or 19th century wasn't built under the ADA, and I don't feel it should be obviously altered to comply. (I'm goin to hell for that, aren't I?!) I also realize that these sites need water and indoor plumbing, electrical systems and lighting, fire protection and suppression, climate control for protection of artifacts, security systems. Like I said, I don't know where the building stops being historic and just becomes a pleasant 21st century reproduction that looks kinda like the original. You know, mostly.

I will make an effort to visit DC and see Ford's Theater soon.

Maybe I'm just grumpy this morning. Or possibly I've been warped by a lifetime of exposure to the extremes of Yellowstone Falls and Niagara Falls. The more I wonder about all this, the more I wonder about all this...what should have happened, what could have happened, what did happen, what might happen, what I worry will happen. (I'm speaking in a very broad sense here of course, not of any place in particular.)

I Thank you again for your patient response. I'm a great fan of this site and your posts on it. Keep up the fine work.

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