Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site | FORD’S THEATRE

Ford's Theatre (photo by Chris)

Ford’s Theatre (photo by Chris)

After perusing the exhibits at Ford’s Theatre Museum, the next stop on the tour of Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is the theater itself. Ironically, you will most likely find that this is the shortest stop on the tour, for unless you are attending a scheduled National Park Service Ranger Talk, a self-guided tour of the theater involves nothing more than walking in, taking a look, and leaving. It is the museums that take up most of your time. If you have rented an Acoustiguide, plan to spend about fifteen minutes listening to the three narrations that pertain to the theater (five if you are doing the Youth Tour). There is a park Ranger on duty at all times if you have any questions, but no formal lecture is given other than at the scheduled times. See the Tickets web page to find out when such talks are held.

Keep in mind that this is not the actual theater in which Lincoln was killed, only the building. Unlike today, where a theater owner would be charging admission the day after the assassination in order to make a buck, back in 1865 such capitalistic ideas did not exist. Owner John Ford, who operated many theaters up and down the east coast, wanted to reopen the theater for performances, but public opinion was highly against it. In fact, the local people wanted it torn down. Ford ended up selling the building to the U. S. Government. It was then gutted and turned into an office building for the War Department and the Surgeon General.

In 1893, a floor in the building collapsed, killing 22 federal employees. After it was repaired, the building was used as a government warehouse until 1911, after which time it remained empty for a few years. In 1928, it was turned over to the Office of Public Buildings and Parks of the National Capital, and the bottom floor was converted into a Lincoln museum. In 1933, the National Park Service acquired the building.

Interest in restoring the theater to its original appearance came about in the late 1940s. A bill was passed by Congress in 1955 to study the matter, and in 1964 it approved funding for the reconstruction. There were no actual architectural drawings of the original interior, so photos, illustrated playbills, written descriptions, and styles of similar theaters of the time where used as the model for the reconstruction. However, the box in which Lincoln was sitting had been photographed after the assassination, so while much of the theater design was left to speculation, the reconstruction of the box is very accurate, even down to its decoration. Thus, while the three dimensional space where Lincoln was shot can be pinpointed, he never set foot in the theater you are standing in today.

The finished theater opened in 1968 as a working theater and a National Historic Site. It is operated by the Ford’s Theatre Society in conjunction with the National Park Service. Theatrical performances, concerts, and other shows are held throughout the year. The theater was renovated during the mid-2000s and reopened in 2009. Modifications were made to bring it up to date technically with modern theaters, not to step it back in time to the 1800s. A new lighting system, updated heating and air, and elevators to comply with accessibility laws are just some of the new upgrades.

Stage at Ford's Theatre

Stage at Ford’s Theatre

The only original artifacts from April 14, 1865, that are on display in Ford’s Theatre are the chair used by Mary Todd Lincoln and a sofa used by the Lincolns’ guests, Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris. The rocking chair that Lincoln sat in has been replaced by an exact replica of the original. All three chairs were part of a set belonging to Harry Ford, the theater manager and brother of owner John Ford, and were only used on special occasions. The box is closed to the public, so you can only get a look at it from the theater seats.

Chairs in the Lincoln box at Ford's Theatre

Chairs in the Lincoln box at Ford’s Theatre

After the assassination, the War Department kept the rocking chair for evidence and then handed it over to the Smithsonian museum. As important as such a chair may seem, it was stuck in a closet and eventually used as a break room chair. What appears to be a blood stain around the head area is nothing more than hair oil from all of the people who sat in it over the years.

Harry Ford’s widow petitioned the government to return the chair, but this was not done until 1929. The family then auctioned it off and Henry Ford (automaker) won the auction, paying $2,400. The chair can now be seen at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

When done at the theater, exit the building and head directly across the street to the third stop on the tour, the Peterson House.

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Last updated on April 26, 2020
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