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