Lincoln's Summer Cottage Reopens in D.C.

The cottage that was Abraham Lincoln's refuge during the Civil War was reopened Monday. The rambling Victorian house stands on the grounds of the Soldier's Home in Washington, D.C., and has some of the most sweeping views of the city. Lincoln spent summers there, grieving the death of his son, Willie, reading Shakespeare and interacting with wounded soldiers and former slaves.

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There's a new attraction in Washington this President's Day weekend. When Abraham Lincoln wanted to escape from the rigors of the presidency, he retreated to little known place three miles north of the White House. The Camp David of the Civil War was a rambling cottage on the grounds of a retirement home for soldiers. After seven-year, $15-million renovation, it reopens to the public tomorrow.

NPR's Dina Temple-Raston has the story.

DIAN TEMPLE-RASTON: Abraham Lincoln spent nearly a quarter of his presidency at the 34-room Victorian cottage. It was here, in this two-story stucco house, that the Lincolns mourned the death of their son, Willie. It was here that he mapped out the strategy for the Civil War. And it was here that Lincoln dreamed up the Emancipation Proclamation.

Frank Milligan is the director of President Lincoln's Cottage.

Mr. FARNK MILLIGAN (Director, President Lincoln's Cottage): The cottage is really the only place in the country now where you can go to understand the Lincoln presidency.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Milligan helped to oversee the restoration and actually lives on the grounds. The cottage has that freshly-painted, new house smell. Most of the rooms are empty, just as it probably were in the 1860s when the Lincolns summered here.

From the upstairs windows, Lincoln would have seen the Washington Monument under construction. The Capitol dome would have still been taking shape. And if you narrow your lids, you can imagine how President Lincoln felt in 1862.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Here he is. He's standing in this room. He's looking out these windows. He's trying to piece together his strategy to win a war and emancipate African-Americans.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Frank Milligan is taking me to one of his favorite rooms - Lincoln's bedroom on the second floor. The room is empty but for a writing desk.

Mr. MILLIGAN: He paced these floors incessantly thinking through the Emancipation Proclamation. He wanted to free the African-American slaves, he just didn't know exactly how to do it.

TEMPLE-RASTON: He came up with an early draft of that solution in this bedroom.

Walking around the cottage transports you back to another time. Had you been a guest at the Lincolns, you might have walked into the drawing room, greeted by music like this.

(Soundbite of music)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Milligan said Mrs. Lincoln loved to entertain. And the first family would invite people into the drawing room where there was an enormous fireplace.

Mr. MILLIGAN: Lincoln loved to stand, wait in front of this (unintelligible). His long, lanky legs stretched wide apart, just enjoying entertaining his guests with poetry, with jokes - he was a great joke teller - and just reading Shakespeare.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Milligan said as Lincoln commuted from the White House, he would see the ravages of the war firsthand. He would pass tents full of union soldiers, and stopped to drink with them. He visited Army hospitals along the way, as well.

Mr. MILLIGAN: We know he must have liked it here, because he kept coming back summer after summer.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Former senator Mike DeWine of Ohio was an early supporter of the restoration project.

Mr. MIKE DeWINE (Former Republican Senator from Ohio): To understand a leader, you need to understand where he or she lived, what they call home. You can understand George Washington without knowing Mount Vernon. You can't fully understand Abraham Lincoln without knowing this cottage.

TEMPLE-RASTON: President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldiers' Home opens to the public tomorrow.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Washington.

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