Hidden in plain sight on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Northwest Washington, D.C., Lincolnís Cottage affords the visitor a rare opportunity to connect with the simple-yet-complex man who was our 16th president.
Abraham Lincoln used the 34-room Gothic Revival house on the outskirts of our nationís capital as a retreat — his Camp David — during the summers of 1862, 1863 and 1864, spending a combined one-quarter of his presidency here. At this cottage he hoped to escape the heat of the summer, the pressure of the presidency and the stress of the ongoing Civil War.
Lincolnís three-mile daily commute to the White House took about 40 minutes on horseback or by carriage — about the same as it might today with traffic being what it is. Along the roadside, the president often stopped to talk to wounded soldiers who had just returned from the front. Lincoln had a life-long desire to connect with ordinary people, and the insight he gained from this rapport helped him make decisions in his role as commander in chief.
He felt so at home at the cottage that he began to refer to his office in the White House as ďthe shop.Ē And while the summer home did provide relief from the daily grind, it did not prove to be much of an escape from the war. Union camps dotted the grounds, and our first National Cemetery was in plain view of the house — a constant reminder of mounting casualties.
Lincoln was remarkably accessible to the public, and a steady stream of visitors made the trek to see him in the evenings. He received callers in the drawing room, where he willingly chatted with those who stopped by.
A docent-led tour brings you to the same room, where youíll hear the words of a late-night visitor who arrived unannounced to find the president sporting bedroom slippers and ruffled hair, sharing stories of his modest upbringing.
This is Abraham Lincoln unplugged. Down-to-earth and introspective, he was relatively unspoiled by the trappings of his office.
Unlike many historic sites associated with the presidents, Lincolnís Cottage is not about furniture, china, or pomp and circumstance. Itís about a humble man who rose to greatness while remaining grounded. Itís about a man who loved his country so much that he worked tirelessly to put it back together again, with little regard for personal expense.
In this house Lincoln mourned his young son, and in its library he enjoyed the books of the times. Here he plotted Union war strategy and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. The last day he visited the cottage was the day before his assassination.
Lincolnís Cottage opened to the public for the first time in 2008, after an extensive $15 million restoration project by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The cottage may only be seen by guided tour, during which visitors walk in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln and explore the major issues of his presidency war, freedom and democracy.
Groups are small, and reservations — which are highly recommended — may be made at www.lincolnscottage.org. Tickets for the one-hour tour are $15 and include admission to the Robert H. Smith Visitors Center.
Plan to arrive 15 minutes early to check in at the Visitors Center, and return after the tour to explore thought-provoking displays on Lincolnís life.
Several museum exhibits provide insight on Lincolnís self-deprecating sense of humor revealed by a display on the 1858 debate with Stephen Douglas. When Douglas accused Lincoln of being two-faced, Lincoln quipped, ďI leave it to you, my audience: If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?Ē
A life-size bronze sculpture of our 16th president and his horse — on the grounds outside the cottage — recalls Lincolnís daily commute to and from the White House, and further points to the ordinary life of this extraordinary man.
What would Lincoln eat?
Hankís Oyster Bar, a Dupont Circle favorite, is the ideal place to enjoy one of Lincolnís favorite foods after touring his historic summer retreat.
In the mid-1800s oysters were well-established fare in taverns up and down the East Coast, and so the munchable mollusk quickly migrated westward. Oyster wagons that were the 19th century equivalent of Fed Ex trucks rushed briny cargo to big cities, and oyster saloons became popular meeting spots for politicians and public servants.
One country lawyer in Illinois was no exception.
That Abraham Lincoln so embraced the humble pub grub spoke to the unpretentious nature of the man. He was said to have shoveled out fried oysters to the public as part of his campaign strategy in 1864.
Hankís Oyster Bar serves up oysters — and other seafood — in a down-to-earth yet stylish setting thatís a quick detour off 17th Street on your way home from Lincolnís Cottage.
Small plates — oysters and clams on the half-shell, jumbo shrimp cocktail, and sake oyster shooters, as well as tender morsels of fried oysters, shrimp and calamari — make satisfying snacks. Large plates — lobster rolls, seared scallops and fried oysters — make even a New Englander smile.
Parking in Dupont Circle is limited, but patience pays off; ride around the block a couple of times, as cars come and go often. We nabbed free on-street parking near the restaurant in the middle of a Saturday afternoon in a matter of minutes. Hankís is well worth the effort.
Elaine Jean is a writer with an incurable case of wanderlust. She and husband/photographer Paul are roaming the planet, starting in the Mid-Atlantic region. Learn more about this and other day trips at www.roamingtheplanet.com.