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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.


I would like to know when the adjoining tavern, (next to Ford's theatre) was demolished/done away with. Whilst visiting the theatre years ago, (as a boy scout) I was informed that Booth, and other actors/stagehands would slip next door thru a passageway for the occasional drink. Would this tavern not hold any historical significance ? I also learned during one of my visits that there were a series of underground passageways beneath the theatre. What became of these ?

Not sure where to start, so I'll just ,well, say my 2 cents worth....
First of all, a quick definition in term as a reminder: The word history comes from Greek ἱστορία (historia), from the Proto-Indo-European *wid-tor-, from the root *weid-, "to know, to see".This root is also present in the English words wit, wise, wisdom, vision, and idea, in the Sanskrit word veda, and in the Slavic word videti and vedati, as well as others.(The asterisk before a word indicates that it is a hypothetical construction, not an attested form.)

With this definition in the English lecticon and use in this circumstance, Fords Theatre would have a "fat" asterisk in front of it and here is why in my opinion.

I have visited Fords Theatre three times in my life 1989,2007,2009. The first time in 1989, I was alone 17 years old, traveled by bus from Minnesota just to visit D.C. At that time, Fords Theatre was alive with the moment of time of when the tragedy that took place there on April 14th, 1865, basically restored to original condition. I was amazed to see the original flag "bunting" that John Wilkes Booth caught his spur on located hanging outside the Presidents viewing box. It had a small tear in the location where Major Rathbone tried to grab Booth as he jumped out of the box down to the stage appox. 18 feet below causing Booth to lose balance, rip the bunting and severly injuring his leg. The flag is gone, location unknown to ANY NPS official.
The second time in 2007, Fords Theatre was closed for renovations, so my focus was to go to the Peterson House across the street. Truely an astonishing feeling to go inside the Peterson House, as if I had just traveled back in time to the incident. The smell, the sounds of the floor creaking beneath your feet, to see the original garments, pictures on the walls, china in the china hutch, the table where Secretary of War Stanton signed the decree to find those responsible for this cowardly act in American history. It was all original, except for the bed and the pillow where President Lincoln had his last breath and as Stanton said " he belongs with the ages". This was history at its best, the way its supposed to be. To temorarily live, smell and feel it as eery as it was.

This is where the term history is being lost at Fords Theatre as I see it. I like the fact that the NPS has gone to a timed ticket. I was not happy to find out that the museum downstairs was closed for renovations ...again! 2 years between renovation seems a little extreme to me, but who am I to complain.
This was the most disturbing... Now I understand this is a "functioning" theatre with numerous productions going on through the calander year. On this day, the stage was in the process of tear-down from a play that was held over the Memorial Day weekend. Upon enetring the theatre, I had seen and took pictures of hand tools,power cords, traffic cones, stage lighting hanging from the ceiling that was lowered down to the stage, stage supply boxes. Basically the theatre looked like a stage from my former high school, all cluttered up taking away from the ambience and completely distracting the eye. I found this VERY disrespectful and wanted to talk to someone in charge as to the "ethics" if you will call it that. It was NOTHING like I remember it in 1989.

Now before I recieve the 3rd degree, think back to the term "history". So the "roots" in this case are literally the four external walls of Fords Theatre, the original picture of George Washington hanging under the Presidential bax and the back door in which John Wilkes Booth escaped out of with his horse just outside it. That is it! No access to the Presidential box anymore, no more access to the door with the hole in it that Booth used to view his prey, the board which he used to jam the back hallway door and that flag"bunting" which seems to lost in history. Having it be an active theatre, who is to say that the NPS is trying to save face because of a "stagehand" from the productions wanted a souvenier and the flag was stolen, or the flag was damaged due to a "stagehand" had dropped a power tool and it ripped the fabric that is literally 150+ years old.

That theatre is not owned by anyone other than the people of the world and is paid for by the tax dollars of the American people. I say no more stage productions at Fords Theatre. You think its a good idea to have a "summer camp" at Auschwitz? A block party in the middle of the former World Trade Center Complex? Or perhaps scuba diving the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor? (I believe its a third degree felony to do so) Ford's Theatre should be no different. Not only is allowing performances to go on in the historic place disrespectful, it is also extremely risky. Who is to say that the electricity that has been put into the theatre for present day performances may be faulty. If there was an electrical fire over night, the entire building could be burnt to the ground and then our history would be completely lost. Why take that risk simply so that the theatre could be used for present day performances? The thought is absurd.

The original renovation makes sense to me, as it was to get the theatre back into the condition it was in 1865. Any more recent renovations were completely senseless. They should have never been thought of to begin with. All it has caused is for history to be lost. Though on a lighter note, the seats are still extremely uncomfortable, so that was definately a waste of money.

Thanks for your time and reading my two cents worth. I sure love America.

I didn't run across any information on Henry Riggs Rathbone in my research for this article.

Perhaps some of our readers are familiar with this story.

Would there happen to be any information about Henry Riggs Rathbone and the (supposed, yet unverified as far I can tell) Bill he presented before Congress on behalf of a museum in Lincoln's honor at Ford's?

I am currently working on a research paper and I am tring to tie Henry Riggs involvement back to the theatre.

Bottomline is, upgrades should be done in moderation. They are supposed to make the historical sites more comfortable for people, and not to alter it's general look. I'm all for the ACs and restrooms, but not so much interest for the supposedly new "parlor" and concessions. I guess it'll destroy the historical feel of the place. It may attract a larger number of people thus creating a crowded atmosphere. Nevertheless, thanks for the great article Jim.

DJ and Warren Z -

A nice exchange of viewpoints and information! It was nice to see the article generated a little discussion, and I appreciate the input from both of you.

Warren's comments as a former employee at Ford's Theater provided some useful, first-hand perspective.

Warren Z -

Thanks again for your response. I guess the conflict is mostly in my emotion and not in my common sense or intellect. I did admit that my position isn't defensible, and the more I think about it the more I don't make sense to myself.

I appreciate your thoughtful replies and the opportunity you and this site give me to think past my knee-jerk response.

I look forward to visiting DC again.

Again DJ, the original performance space at Ford's Theatre hasn't existed since the War Department took over the building in the late 1860's.
The entire internal structural space as it existed from 1968 until prior to the current "upgrades" was a fiction. I guess that's why I don't see the harm in making it a little more comfortable and accessible while maintaining the historical look.

ADA: you said "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." Well, I don't know that the current set of upgrades will be all that obvious. How does your wife feel about the limits on accessibility you would place on her? And what buildings owned by the Federal government, historic or not?

For me, a site's individual character is not necessarily found in a certain level of authenticity (a battle that the structure of Ford's Theatre basically lost in the late 1860's) but in the meaning that you and I bring when in proximity to the place. That's where the NPS comes in and does an amazing job interpreting the site for the thousands of visitors the site receives every day.
Trust me DJ, you'll find and feel what you're looking for at FTNHS, a/c or no a/c.

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