President Lincoln's Cottage Celebrates One Year Anniversary

By Erin Carlson Mast

Today marks the one year anniversary of opening President Lincoln’s Cottage to the public.  The site opened following a 7 year project to research, restore, and interpret the Gothic Revival Cottage Lincoln lived in for a full quarter of his presidency, rehabilitate the historic landscape, and sustainably rehabilitate the 1905 Beaux Arts style building now known as the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center.

An Award Winning Site

And what a first year it has been!  In the first 365 days, President Lincoln’s Cottage received a number of accolades, including:
2008 Mayor’s Award for exemplary restoration
2008 Silver MUSE Award from the American Association of Museums for outstanding use of media and technology in a museum
2008 Restoration Project of the Year by Mid-Atlantic Construction, and the
2008 Vision Award from the Committee of 100 of the Federal City, which gives the award to project of “particular merit that reflect our values and benefit the city as a whole.”

A Year of New Programs and Major Events

The staff  launched a variety of programs for the first year, including exhibits, a speaker series, special programs such as a demonstration on historical photography, and has hosted a series of private and public events.  Let’s look at some of the highlights:

In Pursuit of Emancipation: Documenting Lincoln’s Decision to Proclaim Freedom,” (February 19, 2008-April 31, 2008) featured rare manuscripts including a copy of the proclamation signed in Lincoln’s own hand (courtesy of the Gilder Lehrman Collection), as well as  items such as the pen Lincoln used to sign the proclamation (courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society).
A Deep & Subtle Expression: Lincoln in Sculpture,” (July 4, 2008-December 19, 2008) displayed sculptural works exclusively from the collections of National Trust Historic Sites, including Chesterwood Estate & Museum, home of Lincoln Memorial sculptor Daniel Chester French.
My Abraham Lincoln,”  (February 12, 2009-December 31, 2009) explores a wide range of Lincolniana from six private collections, launched on Lincoln’s 200th birthday, just 7 days before the close of our first year.

In the summer, President Lincoln’s Cottage launched a new lecture series featuring authors of recently published books on Lincoln and the Civil War.  Recently named “Cottage Conversations,” past speakers included Chandra Manning for What This Cruel War Was Over (Vintage, 2008), Stephen Berry  for House of Abraham: Lincoln & The Todds, a Family Divided by War (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), and Burrus Carnahan for Act of Justice(UP of Kentucky, 2007).  Future speakers include Michael Burlingame, Daniel Epstein, Catherine Clinton,  and Harold Holzer, all authors of new Lincoln books published in the past few months.

President Lincoln’s Cottage Grand Opening
US Treasury Launches the New $5 Bill
Lincoln Bicentennial Celebration and Statue Dedication

President Lincoln’s Cottage launched a quarterly newsletter this year.  The newsletter features new research on the Cottage, new acquisitions for the collection, and events on programs, events, and other opportunities at the Cottage.  The newest edition of the newsletter comes out in about a week!  To receive the quarterly newsletter, send a request with your contact information to:

Vital Statistics: A Look Back

All tours of the Cottage are guided, with up to 20 people per tour with a few exceptions.  On typical days, there is one tour per hour.  This policy helps preserve the Cottage and maintain a more open, intimate experience for our visitors.  Despite these “restrictions,” 28,803 visitors came through the Cottage in its first year!  Thanks to everyone who came out to visit the site.

Visitors came from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
The majority of the visitors are from DC, Maryland, and Virginia (approximately 13.5%, 17.4%, and 17%, respectively).
Visitors have come from countries all over the world, including Brazil, Canada, Chile, Egypt, France, Germany, Indonesia, Spain, South Korea, Turkmenistan, and the United Kingdom.

Our online survey covers a wide range of issues. Here is a sampling of the statements and responses:

“The Cottage tour was informative, enjoyable, and I learned something new”  93.3% Agreed, 2.2% Disagreed
“I will recommend President Lincoln’s Cottage to others”  91.9% Agreed, 2.4% Disagreed
“The best part of my visit was the…” Cottage tour (58.9%), Tour Guide/Staff (27.5%), Exhibits or multi-media (11.4%)
“The part [of my visit] that could use improvement was…”  No response (35.8%) , Museum Store (28.4%), Tour (18.1%), and the remainder saw room for improvement in the multi-media, exhibits, and staff/admissions process.
(Note: remainders are neutral or no response, unless otherwise noted)
President Lincoln’s Cottage is always looking to improve the visitor experience and operation of the site.
In response to the results of the online survey and conversations with our visitors, the staff regular makes strides to improve the Museum Store operation.  Recently, President Lincoln’s Cottage retained a consultant to spend two days reviewing store operations, merchandising, and design.  After the report was received this week, changes were implemented immediately and plans for the future of the store are in development.
President Lincoln’s Cottage has also made improvements to the tour, which staff view as an ongoing process of review and adjustment, part of our goal to create the best possible visitor experience.
Some of the concerns voiced by visitors were about tour length (the tour is 1 hour, but sometimes goes longer if visitors have lots of questions), while others were interested in getting different kinds of tours.  In addition to continued training  for our paid guide staff and other improvements to the media, President Lincoln’s Cottage will launch several specialized tour offerings starting this year to meet the demand for specialized tours including one in the Cottage focused on preservation and architecture and a tour for the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center focused on the sustainable rehabilitation and LEED Gold certification.  Stay tuned for more information on these and other specialized tours.

Vision for the Future

As the Cottage enters its second year, the Lincoln bicentennial is in full swing.  The new exhibit, “My Abraham Lincoln” is open for the entire bicentennial year, and the “Cottage Conversations” program features some of the newest and greatest books to come out about Lincoln in this year.

In an effort to further the broad understanding of Lincoln’s presidency, President Lincoln’s Cottage has been developing the Lincoln Presidential Studies Center since 2006, when an initial survey was conducted to assess need and purpose for a new center.

The Lincoln Presidential Studies Center will seek to expand the audience for Lincoln studies and advance knowledge of Lincoln’s growth as a leader and his steadfast devotion to the ideals of freedom, democracy and equality of opportunity. Reflecting the personal, intimate nature of Lincoln’s time at the Cottage, the Center will provide a forum to bring into focus the man behind the myth – a consummate politician, skilled military commander and supremely ethical statesman.

President Lincoln’s Cottage will continue to offer the public an in-depth look at Lincoln the man and president.  Walking in his foot-steps, visitors gain insights into the crucial decisions Abraham Lincoln made while living at this country retreat.  Lincoln lived at the Soldiers’ Home for a quarter of his presidency.  While living here, he made important decisions about the Civil War and Emancipation and shaped the future of this nation.

Ms. Mast is the Curator for President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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