Sunday, February 22, 2009

Ford's Theatre Renovation: A Short Review

Yesterday I got a chance to visit the recently refurbished Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.

Ford's Theatre, of course, is the site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. (He was attending a performance of Our American Cousin.) And I'd been eagerly awaiting the reopening after a significant closure for renovation.

The good news is that the building looks great, and it retains its function as a working theater, which I think is a great thing.

The "tour," however, was not so great. It's free. That's the best thing that you can say for it. The museum of Lincoln artifacts in the basement of the building is not open yet. (Won't open until June at earliest, our presenter said. The coat Lincoln wore that fatal night is on temporary display in the lobby, though no one told us what or where it was during the presentation. You needed to figure that out for yourself.)

Tours run on the hour by a timed ticket system, but visitor should be forewarned that there is no opportunity to poke around the theater. You are herded into the main auditorium and forced to sit for 20 or so minutes. Then a National Park Service historian gives you a lecture that's pitched at folks who know that Lincoln was assassinated at this place -- and precious little else.

Don't get me wrong. Lectures should be pitched at roughly that level. But that presentation was the sum of the present Ford's Theatre experience. The balcony was closed, so no chance to look into the Presidential Box where Lincoln was shot. (I don't know if this will change in future or not.) So essentially you got to go in, sit down, hear a talk, and then file out. Really disappointing. Indeed, the closest thing to a tour you can get at the moment is this "virtual tour" on the Ford's Theatre web site.

Ford's reestablishment in the late 1960s as a working theater was a terrific impulse. The sites of Civil War Washington are disappearing fast, and the rebuilding of the theater (which had been stripped and turned into a government office building for much of the 100 years after the assassination) is a boon to communicate to visitors just what that era was like in Washington's history.

But denying folks the chance to poke around and explore --especially the balconies and the box -- runs counter to that living history/working theater concept. I hope it changes once the museum opens -- and that visitors will get a keener sense of the momentous event that occurred there in 1865.

And, yes, for the curious, who are wondering about the source of my sudden Lincoln obsession -- I am starting research on a Lincoln play set in Washington in 1865. Stay tuned.

Photo of Ford's Theatre after Lincoln's assassination in 1865 from the Library of Congress.

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