For over a quarter of his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln lived on an uplifting hilltop in Northwest Washington, D.C., while making some of his most critical decisions about freedom, the Union, and the presidency. While living here, Lincoln visited with wounded soldiers, spent time with self-emancipated men, women and children, and developed the Emancipation Proclamation. Though Lincoln wrote of his time here little—if at all—his actions bear witness to how important this place was to him and his family. Despite warnings, Lincoln risked his life and the safety of himself and his family to live here. He faced the human cost of war each day here, from the cemetery filling with soldiers’ graves, to caravans of wounded soldiers, to the disabled veterans living next door. His daily commute brought him face to face with those who found freedom in the District. Lincoln’s experiences here provided new and diverse perspectives on issues of freedom, justice, and humility.
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The Cottage was built for banker for George W. Riggs starting in 1842. Architect John Skirving designed the house, situated on a hilltop overlooking downtown Washington, in the Gothic-Revival style popularized by A.J. Downing. In 1851, the estate was purchased by the Federal Government, for the purpose of building a home for veteran soldiers.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln and his family relocated to the Soldiers’ Home for the “hot season.” The family intended to move the summer of 1861, but the outbreak of the Civil War changed everything. The Lincolns were able to move here in June of 1862 and stayed through November. The Lincoln family returned in the summers of 1863 and 1864, and research shows they had every intention of returning in 1865, for what would have been a very different summer for the Lincoln family. The tranquil surroundings at the Soldiers’ Home offered refreshing breezes, a relief from White House protocol, and provided a place for the President to reflect on all-consuming decisions about military strategy, domestic policy, and foreign relations. Though a relative sanctuary, President Lincoln was no less consumed with the war and issues of freedom and slavery here.
At the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln made some of the momentous decisions that defined his presidency. He met and consulted with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, Secretary of State William Seward, Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, and many others. He also formulated his thoughts on freedom that became the Emancipation Proclamation and mourned the death of his son, 12-year-old Willie, from typhoid. At the Cottage, Lincoln read Shakespeare, the Bible, poetry, and treatises on war. On one occasion, he and his family were evacuated from the grounds when nearby Fort Stevens came under Confederate attack in July 1864.
On his daily rides between the Cottage and the White House — a trip he often made alone, particularly the first summer in residence — Lincoln watched as the war transformed the nation’s capital. Military camps, government offices, hospitals, “contraband camps” where formerly enslaved men, women, and children sought refuge, and a ring of defensive forts supported the burgeoning wartime activity.
After the Civil War, two other presidents, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Chester A. Arthur, occupied the Cottage during their terms in office. The building also was used as a dormitory, quarters for the Soldiers’ Home band, a bar and lounge for residents, and the public affairs office, through the late 1990s.
In July 2000, President Clinton declared the cottage and surrounding landscape the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument. It was an early and important step in the process of resurrecting the remarkable history of this place. Shortly thereafter, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Armed Forces Retirement Home finalized a cooperative agreement, whereby the National Trust undertook an eight-year, $15 million capital project to preserve the Cottage, landscape and adjacent building converted to a visitor center, and to open it to the public as a tangible link to Lincoln’s time at the Soldiers’ Home.
In January 2016, an independent 501(c)(3), President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home, assumed responsibility for the operation and governance of the National Monument, via agreement with the National Trust.
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THE LANDSCAPE OF PRESIDENT LINCOLN’S COTTAGE
The landscape surrounding President Lincoln’s Cottage is historically significant for its association with the life of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. The Cottage is located on the campus of the Armed Forces Retirement Home (historically known by many names, including the Soldiers’ Home) in the northwest quadrant of Washington, District of Columbia.
The character of the landscape surrounding the Cottage is representative of its varied history since the mid 19th century. In 1842, the property was the rural, private estate of George W. Riggs. The Federal Government approved purchase of the land in 1851 for the foundation of a home to care for veterans. This facility was called the U.S. Military Asylum at first and soon renamed the U.S. Soldiers’ Home. The establishment of a soldiers’ home on the grounds of the once private estate brought a shift in form and program to the landscape that continues to evolve today with the changing needs of AFRH. Today, the 256-acre landscape features a mix of historic and modern buildings, rolling hills, wooded paths, and sweeping views of Washington, DC.
Although certain characteristics of the 1860s landscape composition have been altered as landscape aesthetics evolved and AFRH expanded and contracted, the landscape maintains a moderate level of integrity as a historically important landscape. The landscape is an integral feature in the interpretation of President Lincoln’s Cottage.