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Lincoln's Summer Residence Now Open to Public

Abraham Lincoln is one of America's best-loved presidents. Known for his bold efforts to end slavery and to hold the nation together during a four-year civil war, the 16th president was assassinated on April 15, 1865, less than one week after the end of that war. He remains a favored subject of historians and the public alike. Now, as VOA's Susan Logue reports, those seeking to learn more about Lincoln can visit the summer house where he spent one-fourth of his presidency.

From June to November in 1862, 1863 and 1864, Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary and their son Tad resided in a 34-room house located in the District of Columbia 5 kilometers from the White House.

"It's always just that touch cooler," says Frank Milligan, director of the historic site, now known as President Lincoln's Cottage, "because we are on the second highest point of land in the metropolitan D.C. area." He adds the house was constructed to take advantage of breezes, providing an escape from the summer heat.

It also provided a respite from White House visitors. "This place was, for Lincoln, clearly a very different sanctuary than the White House, where he was besieged by office seekers and political opponents and colleagues. It was a world away."

The summer residence, built by a Washington banker in 1842, was purchased by the U.S. government in 1851, and the first retirement home for American war veterans was built on the grounds just a few meters from the house. Instead of having to deal with the usual parade of lobbyists and politicians seeking him out at the White House, Lincoln was surrounded by soldiers camped on the grounds to protect the family and veterans.

"These were grounds where the President was known to wander quite regularly in the evenings," Milligan says. "He'd wander to the military camp, sit down with the boys and have a cup of coffee. And the veterans, too, provided Lincoln that respite from the ongoing demands he faced at the White House."

Veterans still live here in buildings neighboring the house. In fact, Milligan notes, the Soldiers Home used the house until it became a national monument in 2000. It served as a residence for female veterans, then as an infirmary. The military band also occupied it for a while. But Milligan's favorite use for the Lincoln Cottage was "the Lincoln Lounge, the bar on campus." He says the 16th president, who never drank alcohol "may have raised his eyebrows at that."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation took seven years and spent $15 million to restore the house to the way it looked when Lincoln lived here.

"The importance of this site really can't be overestimated," Milligan says. "It's the only place where one can go where Lincoln lived as president for an extended period of time, to see where he was when he was forming some of his major policies."

Such as the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in states that had seceded from the Union. Although Lincoln commuted to the White House every day he lived here, Milligan says he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation at the cottage.

The house has a replica of the desk he used. The original has been in the White House since 1930, but curator Erin Mast says it was originally here at the cottage. "We knew that was something the Lincolns had out here. It was the property of the home, and so the White House let us reproduce that one piece."

Mast says none of the objects in the Lincoln cottage is original to the home, but the furnishings were chosen to evoke the Lincoln period. "You also see remnants of the Lincolns' life out here, whether it is a stovepipe hat, a shawl, a book we know Lincoln loved to read out here to friends or family. "

The cottage is sparsely furnished, in part, Mast says, because history says it was. "A lot of the Lincolns' visitors comment on it being neatly furnished or plainly furnished, and in one account, sparsely furnished."

She adds that she and director Frank Milligan wanted to emphasize Lincoln's ideas not "decorative arts."

Visitors to the Lincoln Cottage today get that information in various ways…from an adjoining visitors' center, from quotes on walls, from guides, from actors' voices, projected through speakers, reading historic accounts of the day, and from videos shown on large screen monitors and slide shows projected on walls, which illustrate the larger story of Lincoln and the Civil War.

Curator Erin Mast says she hopes the house conveys to visitors the essence of America's 16th president. "And that it gives them an opportunity to learn something new about one of the most well-known presidents in American history."

For many, the existence of the house itself, which was largely forgotten, will be a fascinating discovery.