Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe. And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks – one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, were innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Thanks to generous donations from our supporters, we created “Q & Abe” – a podcast that investigates real questions from visitors to the Cottage. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth-seekers – so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions. Come down the rabbit hole with us as we discover answers to these questions.
In this episode, we’re investigating a question we often get from visitors: “What’s the Cottage worth?” Come investigate with us as we pore through old banking records and talk to an insurance adjuster, an antiquities appraiser, and an architect who studies sacred spaces. In addition to the embedded media player below, you can find the podcast on Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts or wherever you get podcasts. You also can read below for a transcript of the episode (coming soon!)
TRANSCRIPT OF EPISODE 2.4 “What is the Cottage Worth?”
Joan Cummins: Every day at President Lincoln’s Cottage, we engage with visitors in conversation on difficult topics, from grief to slavery to American identity. Visitors, young and old alike, come here from next door and from around the globe.
Callie Hawkins: And occasionally, we get asked a question on a tour that stops us in our tracks, one we wish we could spend a half hour answering. Some of these questions, on their face, seem innocent or simple, but on a second look they contain a level of complexity that leaves us wanting to know more. Each episode, we’ll investigate a single real question a visitor asked us here.
JC: At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we’re storytellers, historians, and truth seekers, so we called on people whose expertise could speak to all the facets of these questions.
CH: I’m Callie Hawkins.
JC: And I’m Joan Cummins. This is Q&Abe. Come on down the rabbit hole with us!
CH: Let’s take that half hour now.
JC: For this episode, we’re working on the question: “What is the Cottage worth?”
CH: So, during I See the President, one of our school programs for 4th and 5th graders, one of the students asked their guide how much the Cottage was “worth.” (In air quotes.) After a giggle about young people’s preoccupation with money, we discovered that this question is asked often – though in slightly different ways – by visitors of all ages. So, maybe the question wasn’t about money at all, maybe it was in part about money, but maybe there was something a little bit deeper.
JC: The first thing this question made me think of was George Riggs, who had the Cottage built, and what the house might be worth to him. I went digging around in our files here onsite to see what I could find out about how much Riggs had spent to build the house, or maybe how much he made when he sold it to the government.
CH: Just to clarify, Riggs, a wealthy Washington banker, had the Cottage built in 1842, and he and his family used the house as a country estate until Riggs sold the property to the government in 1851, as the government was starting the retirement home for veterans that still occupies the site. The retirement home then invited the Lincolns to take up residence about a decade later.
JC: Because of his role in commissioning the house, Riggs shows up in the beginning of all the reports I was able to find in our files. We have two historic landscape reports, one from 1985, and one from 2004. Both say that Riggs spent about $3400 to buy the land he would build the Cottage on, and sold it later for about $57,500. The later report cites the earlier one, though, and the earlier report has citations but not specific footnotes – so I wanted to see if we could push further and get our hands on some actual primary sources for these numbers.
CH: Knowing that George Washington University has some of the Riggs papers, we made an appointment to go downtown and comb through these huge, old volumes of bank records – the books themselves are about three feet wide and enormous. After looking at them let’s just say that Riggs’s account looks a little bit different than mine. [laughter] There was a lot of interesting stuff in there, but with the exception for an entry about some mantles, we didn’t really find what we were looking for.
JC: We also reached out to the DC Recorder of Deeds, the Duke University Archives, and the National Archives, all of which have some related papers. But, it wasn’t until I went to the Library of Congress that we found some success – can I tell you about what I found?
JC: Okay, so, the Library of Congress has the original specs for the building of the Cottage, of the house itself, so I want to read you some pieces of those. One of the things that was super interesting to me about all of these records is none of them are on sizes of paper that we would consider standard now; so they’re all bigger or smaller than 8.5×11, and when they’re folded up – we fold a paper in half, maybe in thirds, but these papers are folded in half, and then in thirds.
CH: Oh. Huh…
JC: So they’re like six – six fold.
CH: Was it to fit in any kind of envelope I wonder or…
JC: No, they all have the address written on the back.
CH: Oh, so that’s how they were mailed, so that must have been a standard. Ok –
JC: [crosstalk] Yeah.
CH: That makes some sense.
JC: So it was super interesting just like, because, it’s a different kind of paper, you know?
CH: [crosstalk] Right, right, right.
JC: So, the specs are on this big sheet of paper, sort of, two sides, front back on two pieces of paper. And here are some of the things that they say. There’s a lot of information about how big the house should be, how big the rooms on the first and second story should be; then it says things like: “all of the above brickwork to be done in the best manner, of the best merchantable brick, best Washington lime and of the best sand that can be procured in the vicinity of the building.”
CH: So Riggs wanted the best, best that had ever bested.
JC: The best, best, best. Because it goes on to – so it does all the brickwork and the stone work, and then it does all the carpentry. And so the carpentry includes: “the partitions for the folding doors to be finished in the best manner.” Then we move on to the roof, and it says: “slating to be done in the best manner and of the best Susquehanna slate. The glass shall be best Washington cylinder glass, painting inside and out, good three coat work, plain color of the best materials.”
JC: So, just really all the way down some instructions that this should be the fanciest house it is possible to get.
JC: Which I thought was kind of incredible.
CH: Yeah, that’s super interesting. Did you come across anything that hinted at who was doing this work? Like we know where the, what the plans were based on, we know what the-the construction group, we know the architect, but who is actually, physically creating this best, best, best work?
JC: So, I don’t think the specs say that at all. My guess for this document is that it’s something that Riggs and the builder wrote out together to, like, hand to a foreman, essentially, to be like: this is the deal that we’re going for. But I think it’s one of those things where like, Riggs was the rich important person, so his papers are in there.
JC: And the people who did the building were not rich enough to have three foot bank ledgers in their life.
JC: So, they don’t end up in the record.
CH: [crosstalk] That’s interesting. What did you find in terms of the sale?
JC: So, there were more of those big account books in the Library of Congress, and I was able to find… let’s count, one, two, three, four, five, six, different payments that Riggs labels as “To the Farm in Washington City.” So, that’s this one. Which I’m especially sure about because the first notation says parentheses “(Corn Rigs),” which was his name for the property. And so the first entry says, “To farm in Washington City (Corn Rigs), received on account of the sale thereof.” And there’s, so… December 13th: $8500. January 31st: $3,000. February 11th: $30,320.68 for some reason.
CH: Gosh, wonder, wonder where they came into the, the big pile of money, that’s interesting. Lump – a balloon payment that was due, perhaps.
JC: Right, and then March 11th: $290.41. And then nothing happens in April, but in May we get: “Last payment of the purchase money,” $7,888.91.
CH: So my math is terrible, what does that equal?
JC: It adds up to $47,500.
JC: Yeah, which is about $1.5 million in 2019 dollars.
CH: In today’s money.
JC: Knowing that that last kind of calculation gets really inaccurate really fast.
JC: But I thought it was just completely weird that it’s in six payments, and it’s not even six regular installments, it’s just like here’s some chunks of money that we can find, sometimes.
CH: Yeah, I mean its Congress, right? So you wonder – it was tied up in some way? Or…it’s interesting.
JC: Part of me was like, is it that they physically need to transport gold bars somewhere?
JC: Maybe? [laughter] I don’t know. But the other thing is like, you can look in the register of Congressional legislation and see where they appropriated the money to start the Military Asylum, the retirement home, and that money is about $100,000. So Riggs got almost half of it for the land and the house.
CH: Well, one of the things that I’ve always assumed was that George Riggs used enslaved labor to construct the house. That’s why I was asking the question about, you know, did you find anything in there. We do know that he enslaved at least a few people. I mean, I think it changes some things for me…
JC: But I think it, regardless of whether they were enslaved or not, it is interesting that we do not have a specific accounting of what part of the cost was labor.
CH: Exactly, exactly. So, so it was always a big, expensive house, and it does seem like Riggs made the most of his investment. I mean, he paid $3400 for the land, and sold it for $47,000. But what about now? What is the Cottage worth today, in 2020?
JC: We started by talking to Kevin Sullivan, who works with National Trust Insurance, the firm that did the insurance appraisal of the Cottage most recently.
Kevin Sullivan: When, when you ask the question “what is the Cottage worth,” it’s a very broad question, of course, and most people… you know, when they ask the question, they are thinking more of market value, right? They’re buying and selling houses that they might live in… and they’re really thinking about the real estate industry. In our world, we aren’t focused on market value, we focus on replacement value. You’re focused on what it would cost to replace these items should they be lost, in a fire, or a flood, or whatever it could be. It’s what would it cost to go about replacing it should you have the need to file an insurance claim? So, you know, when you look at the unique aspects of Lincoln’s Cottage, or really all historic structures, you know, Lincoln’s Cottage in particular, with glass panel doors, and unique architectural features such as arched ceilings, and marble mantles, and all the other aspects that really make a historic building unique, those factors have to be considered. And what it all boils down to is a replacement value. So, what would it cost to replicate Lincoln’s Cottage – you obviously can’t replicate the history, but you can, in most cases, replicate the materials, the architectural features, the craftsmanship that was used, and that’s what we focus on. In the case of Lincoln’s Cottage, we’ve gotten an appraisal done, and it’s inventoried all the materials, so the listener can’t hear this but I’m holding it within my hand, a 20 page – or 60 page report of all of the materials that are found within the building, and it boils down to a replacement value, again, to answer your question from my, my perspective of what it’s worth, of 9.9 million dollars. On a per square foot basis, it is roughly $736 a square foot.
JC: I like the idea of measuring it by the square foot somehow, and you can hear from Kevin that all those “best” materials that Riggs ordered – in the specs – are still making a difference in how much the house is worth.
CH: The first two things that come to my mind when we talked to Kevin are: “wow! That’s a huge number!” And, that I think it’s really, really important to point out that the craftsmanship we assign so much value to might have been done by people who were denied right[s] as citizens, and considered less than a person. That’s a lot to take in. Back to the number: 9.9 million is already more than double even the most expensive real estate listings we were able to find in DC.
JC: Not to mention, counting up square feet didn’t seem like it was quite the whole picture. Maybe this was naïve of me, but I was kind of surprised to discover that the historical component, the emotional component maybe, had no bearing on the insurance valuation. I had one more question for Kevin. I understand that the sort of ah, emotional, historical, sentimental component does not factor into the insurance work. What are your personal thoughts on how a person goes about measuring that value?
KS: Well when you think about, um, the aspects of the historic, you know, the ties to Lincoln – I think of fine art, right? I think of a painting by Picasso or whatever it might be, and when you have something that’s unique like that, it tends to drive the value up. Well, when you look at the house museums of really prominent historical figures like Lincoln, or Thomas Jefferson, or the ones that, you know, our children learn about in history class, then we’re talking about a different level of worth.
CH: This was a great insight, that rather than real estate, we needed to be thinking about objects that attained a similar level of uniqueness to the Cottage – things that are the only one of them there is. We went to talk to Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books in DC, who professionally appraises art and other historic objects.
JC: We were wondering, how do you put a monetary value on the historic or sentimental aspects of an object?
Allan Stypeck: The first step would be in the establishment of the physical property value, not taking into consideration the cost that you would increase it because, like this being a, a residence that um, Lincoln lived in. It all depends on the provenance value of the individual item, the use of that provenance value, and the application of the historical presentation, do you follow those three points?
JC: So provenance is like, what are the primary sources that can prove it actually belonged to Lincoln, and then –
AS: [crosstalk] Right, exactly. Chain of custody, right. Then the next step is taking that item and putting it in a presentation. So in other words, you have an artifact – let’s say we had the blotter here, we put the blotter on that table, then on top of that, you’re in the Cottage, which is a Lincoln residence.
JC: So sort of the context of the item, too –
AS: The context of it, exactly.
JC: Cool, cool.
AS: [crosstalk] So now you have – it becomes logarithmic.
JC: Allan described how, in doing an appraisal, he would start with the value of the house itself. Then, you add to that the value of the tangible property – which means furniture, lamps, that kind of thing – and not only their market value, but their legacy value because they have historic aspects and because they’re located at Lincoln’s Cottage.
CH: We talked about objects quite a bit, but since we’re a museum of ideas rather than objects, I was talking with Allan about how we work to help people realize that what Lincoln did here was a step towards realizing equality of opportunity –
AS: And I haven’t even gotten to that. To raise this to the levels that we actually have to get to to evaluate it are the next steps. We’re doing the baseline value now. So once we’ve assigned the baseline value, now we have that as the core value. Now how do we take the next step, which is the intangible, legacy step, the responsible step for historical perspective, inspirational perspective? And you could say the Cottage is worth 25 million dollars. And I could probably expand on that, or on a five year period, let’s say every year you bring in x amount of money. So, that’s part of the equity value of the Cottage. You have tactile material that if you had to sell at auction, you could sell. You have the legacy value for the house which is in addition to the personal – to the physical property. So when you add all this up, the Cottage itself has a higher level.
CH: I know it’s important to the organization that the Cottage be not only a place where people learn about Lincoln’s experience, but also think about what they themselves can do to carry Lincoln’s ideas forward and contribute to civil discourse. When I mentioned this to Allan, he ran with it:
AS: Yeah, and see, you just did something, which, just the three of us have just taken A to B to C to D, we’ve now created an E, so the value of the Cottage has just increased. Because we’ve created scenarios which are very adaptable and useful for the use of the Cottage and they are practical for your purpose. So all of a sudden we can now put into perspective that the Cottage has even more value. Because, we didn’t even look at the possibility of how it can be used from this perspective. So that’s additional value. You see, when you’re touching, when you’re touching history, and you’re trying to evaluate it, you can’t just say ok, it’s got this ground level and that’s all there is. Okay it’s got ground level and one. It builds and builds and builds. And so eventually, every time you add to the usage of it, in whatever philosophical, tactile, um historical, academic purpose, whatever the usage of it, it adds value to it.
JC: So my question is, part of what you’re saying now, is that the things that Lincoln did here add value to the house, but also all the things we have done or visitors have done here since the house opened to the public have also added to the value of the house…
AS: Of course! Yea, I mean, which is what this is about, I mean, continuity and longevity are part of ah, you know, are part of the evaluation project, it’s like business goodwill. I’ve been in business for 45 years, okay, you know, how much is that worth? Hopefully for me it’s worth a lot, because I think I’ve got a good reputation, but you know, this is the goodwill that you’ve created. Somebody takes this over, they have added value, because you’ve created a value which they get as part of the purchase. So do you add that to the evaluation of the house? Of course! It’s a no-br – hate to use the term “a no brainer” but it is exactly – if you don’t see it, then you shouldn’t be doing the appraisal.
JC: Allan also told us that the type of collaborative conversation we had is essential to good appraisal work. It takes appraisal from a theoretical methodology to an applied practice in determining the value of something.
CH: We told him about the number from Kevin’s report, 9.9 million dollars, and asked how he would adjust it.
AS: I would say then I would start at 20 million. Ok, cause I would have needed their figure.
JC: To start from.
AS: Yeah, cause I’m throwing 5 million in to the house property, which I’m not making the evaluation. So if 9 million is the core value, add another 5 million dollars, and that is just where I would start. Because I could build this considerably with, with a couple months of serious historical perspective, I would give you a list of 20 different ways you could create a higher visibility if you had the funding behind you.
CH: Given that the premise of the insurance report is that it’s looking at what it would cost to rebuild the Cottage, we wondered what Allan thought. From his perspective, could you rebuild it?
AS: No. Building it back up would never be the same, because the entire concept of it is, it’s still in 1865. And you can’t go any furth – you can’t go and change that. So if you rebuilt it, all you’d be doing is creating a mausoleum.
JC: Which made me feel a little creepy, the idea of the building empty of the things that make it what it is. Because I have had such a strong experience of the presence of this place and of the, the spirit of the place, that the idea of that being missing, but the marble mantels still looking at me, as it were, was kind of freaking me out. I think you and I have both had a more profound experience of the house than that, yes?
JC: All of which is to say – Allan’s 25 million dollars encompassed more of the historical legacy of the space, but we still felt like there was something missing. What might be some other ways we could measure the value of the Cottage?
CH: We went to talk to Julio Bermudez, a professor of architecture at Catholic University and a very dear friend of ours. Julio studies how the architecture of contemplative spaces impacts people, which means he has a lot of practice working to measure and evaluate intangible things. In fact, he worked with us to design a phenomenological study to measure the impact of the Cottage experience on the visitor.
JC: Right away, when we asked him what the Cottage might be worth, he said:
Julio Bermudez: It’s priceless. That’s what I would say, it’s priceless. And I can articulate why. Well, I mean, one – one interesting way to put it is, what is the value of the 5th Symphony of Beethoven? You know, what is the value of the Parthenon? You know, what is the value of the most precious thing that humanity have created and has given so much joy, and beauty, and story about who those people were, but also who we are? Because I think when we encounter these amazing buildings, in this case, there is a revelation of who we are. I mean, those of us – and I think the majority of people are sensitive – they feel it, they feel something special. I think when you go to the Cottage – and I think it happened the first time I was there – you feel the presence of not just history of, but of Lincoln, you have the presence of goodness and ideals and what really this country is all about, you feel, you know, you feel proud to be American… And I think the architecture, somehow records this.
CH: Julio also spoke to how the experience we’ve designed at the Cottage affects people’s interaction with the architecture and with the space.
JB: And I think the other aspect of the Cottage that, always, and when the first time we met, it was all about – that there is an architectural quality by allowing people to walk through the spaces, to really explore, on them – by themselves, and hearing, you know, the echoes and, just being able to touch the materials and basically find your way around – that is just incredible. You know, I think sometimes people pay an entry fee and you are just basically forced to a particular experience that has been preordained for you. And, I think it’s, at least from my view, it has always been very frustrating, because you really are not in any freedom to, to feel the place. You know? And also the other aspect of the Cottage that is also priceless is that they give you the time that you could do these things, so it’s not like you are rushing through. So it’s also – it takes time to appreciate things, and I think the other – I think in a way you could see the, the whole experience as being very generous. Which is also another way of thinking of price, you know, that you afford people, from all walks of life, anybody really, first you have the trust that they will honor that. You know, you don’t, you didn’t check me out, I could have done anything, you trust whoever comes in, you give them the time and the, the assurance that they could experience how they wanted, and you offer this. It’s a beautiful gesture. So it’s a, it’s really a giving in the spirit of Lincoln, in the spirt of what it ought to be. And I don’t know how you put price on that. So, to me there is an aspect to this that enters, that because the attitude, the way that you offer this incredible priceless jewel to anybody is because – then the experience happens.
JC: I was curious about how Julio thought about the relationship between buildings, as material things, and people’s emotions. What kind of things was he finding out in his research? How can a building make you feel something?
JB: Well, I think architecture ah, without people doesn’t exist. And it doesn’t – I don’t want to go into sort of nihilism here, because of course you know, the, the tree falls in the forest, it does fall, we do know that – however, to experience the drama of the falling, you know, the unique moment, if there is not a human being there, that moment is lost. So when I think of architecture, I never think of an object. But I see this – if you think of a tango, of two, of a couple dancing, that the man does this move, the woman makes this move, and there is this music going on, and the experience is really both an interaction. The man will have an experience, the woman, but it’s this interaction in the whole dance – so when you go to see a building, something like that happens. The building offers itself to you and you accept that invitation, and you begin to dance with the, the building. Ah, and the building offer its personality, its qualities, its gifts, its problems, you know, some buildings have issues, you know, they’re falling apart, you know, and then you bring your own, you know, knowledge, your attitude, your expectations, your, your love, whatever it is that you bring to that, and then in this dance, things begin to happen. And sometimes the dance, or the interaction, or the experience, usually it’s called experience, is such that it’s extraordinary. What happens is extraordinary. And, you know, there are cases, which is, I’m writing a book on this, you know, called Extraordinary Architectural Experiences, where the building literally breaks you down to a point of finding some sort of transcendental connection. You know, whether the connection is to God, or it’s to your own sense of being, or perhaps it’s to some sort of ideal, some principle that you feel very convinced, or maybe it’s to your homeland. I’m writing a book on this. I also done neuroscience, as you know, you know, what happens in the brain, you know, we’ve found, for instance, when looking at contemplative spaces, and I think you could say that the Cottage in many ways, in some, definitely in some rooms, is very contemplative. What we have found out is that people – in comparison to ordinary architecture, ordinary architecture compared to contemplative architecture – what we found is that ah, when people experience these contemplative spaces, all the areas of the brain, which is basically the frontal cortex, you know, the areas we associate with thought, with self, with narrative, you know, memory, criticism, analysis, all that stuff that we consider who we are, are all shut down. It’s remarkable. By definition, it’s called hippofrontality, means that, again, the frontal cortex is shut down, you are completely, the traditional self is completely gone. However you haven’t been more conscious in your life, you are superconscious, you are super – so in order for you to experience this extraordinary thing, you know, your ego has to be gone, and then you have profound communication with what is. You are in this kind of – in the dance, in the best dance, there is no you, you are just dancing.
CH: Julio explained why this research matters in the first place.
JB: And emotions are really important. Because, you know, I think, oftentimes these days, the way that we approach things, architecture for sure, but the arts, is through our head, our intellect, trying to understand, to explain, to rationalize, to articulate with words, um, which is all ok and understandable. But we all know too that that’s not where life is about. We know that life comes through ourselves, through our bodies, and also our emotions, and although, also could be the kind of the lowest expression of humanity, and we know when unfortunately when that happens, also the highest. And when you are at that level of, of profound engagement, in the profound dance or the interaction, emotions are incredibly, um, signs of something happening that cannot be articulated in words. You are trying to explain that, you know, and you’re trying, I’m trying, but in the end it’s – it’s called, ineffable, you cannot express it.
CH: [crosstalk] Right! You, you just you can’t.
JB: Yeah. And it’s called ineffable, that’s the words that exists for this, it’s just – that which cannot be said, whatever you said you miss it.
JC: One of the things I found most impressive about Julio was his ability to talk about the unexplainable and his efforts to measure something that seems impossible to measure.
CH: And, I keep thinking about how it can be worth different things to different people – none of which is less important than the other. Which leads me to think that maybe it’s impossible to measure after all.
JC: So, is it even a useful question, what is the Cottage worth?
JB: I think it’s a great question in the sense that it, it allows this meditation. You know, this conversation I think is a very worthwhile, and I think in this – issue. And I think in this world in which we are so geared to, to think about concrete, you know, materialism, because we are surrounded by it, everything has a price, or everything you know, is, is purchasable, or can be gotten, I think it’s good to be reminded that that’s not the case. That some things need to be preserved because they are priceless and they cannot… when they are lost, they are lost. And I think the duty of every generation is to preserve those things that make us whole, make us one, and I think that’s the great thing about the organization you, you lead, is that you keep that for all of us. You know, this is what you do so that hundred years from now, or whenever it is, somebody could have this experience we are talking about and we realize why we are, why we – I mean, as you hear in my accent, I was not Ameri – born American, but I have always felt, since the moment I learned about America, profoundly American. I mean I could get emotional about this. You know, because the values of America, you know, sometimes we lose them, you know, we lose them, and we could lose them, and I think you go to that place and you feel them, you know what I mean? You feel them. And it’s hard, it’s important to keep those, that memory, you know, it’s so important to keep them. If we lose that, we lose ourselves, and what’s the price of that? You know? There is no, no price. There is no price.
CH: I can’t lie, we left this conversation with Julio pretty emotional.
JC: I got a lot of new numbers in my head from this episode, but in the end I still marvel at how a house built for a rich man, with all the best materials, but just a house, could have given Lincoln an experience so profound that he rebuilt America, replacing the imperfect freedom from the founding with something more widespread and longer-lasting.
CH: We want to encourage you to think about: What American values are worth the most to you? What can you do to preserve them for the future?
JC: This episode was produced by me, Joan Cummins, and Callie Hawkins. Music for Q&Abe was written, performed, and is copyrighted by, Clancy Newman.
CH: Q&Abe is possible thanks to generous supporters of President Lincoln’s Cottage. To find out how you can support this podcast and other programming, visit www.lincolncottage.org.
JC: To the visitor who asked the question behind this episode, thanks for helping us find something beyond measurement.
CH: Comments? Questions? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave us a review on your podcast app.
JC: President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas. Stay curious!