WASHINGTON — Workers rolled out sod amid snow flurries Tuesday, determined that the summer home where President Lincoln and his family spent more than a quarter of his Washington life will look fully restored by Presidents Day.
The sprawling Gothic Revival cottage, likely to be Washington's next niche tourist attraction, lies only three miles north of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. But it's 300 feet higher than the swamp-level White House, hence is breezier and as much as 7 degrees cooler, according to Frank Milligan, the director of the President Lincoln's Cottage Project.
That might have been enough for Lincoln, who, between 1862 and his death in 1865, commuted 45 minutes each way daily by horse or carriage from June well into fall to escape the various forms of pestilence in the Civil War capital and to read, think and relax.
Despite a seven-year restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Lincoln's cottage is like many summer houses: It doesn't look like much.
The exterior is pale brown stucco with green shutters and dark brown trim with modest scrollwork, more grand Ohio farmhouse than mansion. Inside, it has 12-foot ceilings and public rooms with good bones. If it has 34 rooms, as Milligan and National Trust President Richard Moe say, most are closed-off servants' warrens in the eaves.
In Lincoln's day, according to a contemporary account cited by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, the cottage's view took in the Potomac River "stretching away plainly visible for 12 miles, Alexandria, Arlington, Georgetown and the long line of forts that bristle along the hills." Lincoln also could watch the Capitol dome's construction from his porch.
Today, a 1960s-era veterans' residence blocks much of that view. Other massive facilities of what's now called the Armed Forces Retirement Home take out all but the Washington Monument's shaft.
Although several presidents after Lincoln also used the cottage as a pre-Camp David retreat, it spent the 20th century as an administrative building for the military retirees' complex.
The cottage's real claim to fame is the history the Lincolns lived in it, Moe said, and that's the way the National Trust is showing it. Its restored rooms, built in 1842 for Washington banker George Riggs, less 23 coats of paint, remain unfurnished, except for what amount to props for storytelling.
Starting on Feb. 19, National Trust guides, supplemented by audiovisuals, will tell groups of no more than 15 visitors about, for example, Lincoln's determination to end slavery — and his hesitation to do so. He worked out both in his mind at the cottage. The home also was the site of much of Lincoln's war planning and political plotting.
When the Lincolns first arrived from the White House — with 19 carriages' worth of furnishings and baggage, by the trust's account — they were grieving over their son Willie's death from what was thought to have been typhoid fever.
"When we are in sorrow, quiet is very necessary to us," Mary Todd Lincoln wrote of the period. In that quiet, President Lincoln often read under the trees on the nearly 300-acre grounds. Son Rob returned from Harvard for the summer — and chased girls, according to Milligan. In the evenings, the president relaxed in his slippers and often recited Shakespeare.
"We are truly delighted with this retreat," Mary Todd Lincoln wrote her friend, Fanny Eames, on July 26, 1862.
One of the cottage's most powerful messages is a silent one. By the time the Lincolns arrived, a graveyard for Union dead was under way on the property. That meant 30 or 40 burials a week, 200 yards from the president's nose, in an environment that he still found relaxing.
At 5,100 dead, the graveyard was full and the burials moved to Arlington National Cemetery, the former Robert E. Lee estate.
Today, the retirement home's buildings obscure the cemetery that Lincoln viewed, too.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private network of national history conservers, spent about $15 million on the retreat's preservation and an adjacent visitor and education center. It's a public-private partnership in which the trust operates the facility and the federal government owns the property.
ON THE WEB
Reservations are strongly recommended, at www.lincolncottage.org or 1-800-514-3849 (ETIX). Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for National Trust members, $5 for children. Groups get price breaks. All tours are guided and occur on the hour and half-hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Sundays, when tours start at noon. Parking is available.
Learn more about the National Trust for Historic Preservation.