I have only visited Washington, D.C. in the summer and every time I have gone, I’ve worried about heatstroke. There’s nothing lovelier than the blast of cold air from a well-air conditioned museum.
Though I’ve been there four times, I’ve never gotten to tour the White House. Until our visit last summer, I’d never gotten to go into the Ford Theater where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. We got to see a newer attraction, The Lincoln Cottage, on that visit too.
It’s not that the cottage itself is new. It’s been there since 1840. Lincoln got the cottage named after him because he’s the best known president to have lived there, but James Buchannan lived there before Lincoln and Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester B Arthur lived there shortly after, too. But who would visit something called “Arthur’s Cottage?” Frankly, until I researched for this article, I’d never even heard of a President named ‘Arthur.’
The day we got to tour the Presidential residence promised to be a scorcher. Though the cottage is only three miles from the White House, it’s on a tall hill and has open land (golf course and cemetery) around it and it was much cooler than the heart of the city. Nevertheless, we were dripping sweat by the time we hiked from the subway station to the museum entrance for our tour. I suppose in the days before air conditioning, the difference between ‘blazing hot’ and ‘sweltering’ would have been more noticeable.
I was surprised to see the spacious home commonly called the ‘cottage’. The gothic revival style is a cottage when compared to the White House, but from a livability point of view, it’s spacious and nicely laid out with rooms designed for good ventilation. The Old Soldiers’ Home has been on the same tract of land since 1850.
Inside, some of the floors are original and there is a replica of Lincoln’s desk. The original sits in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House, but Lincoln had the original with him at the cottage each summer and fall. From that desk at the Cottage, he drafted the “Emancipation Proclamation.”
Throughout the Civil War, Lincoln had a clear view from the cottage windows of the Old Soldiers’ Home and burials in the military cemetery. Groundskeepers offered to plant trees to obscure that view but Lincoln forbid it. He wanted to be reminded of the toll the war was taking on American families.
His slippers are on display in the museum. Several visitors to the president while in residence remarked that he met them in his slippers. Apparently, he had narrow feet that were approximately a men’s size 12.
Lincoln ignored warnings about his safety and rode his gray horse from the cottage to his White House office and back again every day. Walt Whitman, American poet, remarked that he was used to seeing President Lincoln, dressed in unassuming black, his face deeply lined with worry and low spirits, riding wearily home each day. Lincoln had plenty of access to a carriage, but the three mile ride, morning and evening, “gave him time to think.”
Now a statue of Lincoln and his horse out in front of the cottage gives the place a more intimate feel. In Washington, D.C., the Lincoln Memorial anchors the bottom of the mall and reflection pond. Lincoln is depicted as seating on a very uncomfortable looking chair, carved in larger-than-life marble. But at the cottage, you imagine the weary man, subject to depression, weighed down by grief over the death of his son, Willie, and worried about his mentally unstable wife, Mary. The blood being spilled in the cause of freedom and civil rights weighed heavily on his mind throughout his presidency.
Lincoln was heavily criticized by people from both political parties. Plagued by self-doubt, he nevertheless took the decisive step to demonstrate Executive powers by producing the Emancipation Proclamation. It was an executive order more controversial than any before or since.
The cottage was a refuge for the Lincolns. It’s not a fancy house, and he was not a fancy man. As I strolled through the rooms, I hoped he had found relief not only from the heat but also from the constant criticism and hatred he endured. He was a hero of self-sacrifice.
Only in America, God bless it.