For six weeks this spring, I volunteered at President Lincoln’s Cottage as part of my employer’s sabbatical program. Having worked at The National Parks Conservation Association for 12 years, I was eligible to participate in the association’s generous sabbatical program if I could find an opportunity that fit with our mission; to preserve our nation’s natural and cultural heritage for generations to come. When President Clinton proclaimed President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home a national monument back in July, 2000 I remember thinking, “Where is it? How can I visit?” Last fall when I read that the site was opening to the public on President’s Day, 2008, I knew exactly where I wanted to spend my sabbatical.
Like most Americans I’ve always regarded Abraham Lincoln as one of our country’s most important presidents. The opportunity to immerse myself in his life, at the kind of site that the public usually doesn’t have access to, truly excited me. While on my sabbatical I read Lincoln’s Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldier’s Homeby Matthew Pinsker, attended an author talk by Burrus Carnahan, author of Act of Justice, and generally soaked up the information on the tour and in the curatorial exhibits. The two exhibits in the Visitor Education Center that most captured my attention were 1.) “Lincoln’s Commute,” which maps the route the president traveled daily to and from The White House during those five months each year that the Lincolns lived at the Cottage – fascinating to anyone, especially those of us living in Washington, and 2.) “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” an interactive desktop exhibit that takes an in-depth look at the Emancipation Proclamation and the individual views of Lincoln’s Cabinet. Thanks to innovative media presentations, everything about President Lincoln’s Cottage and the visitor center brings history to life in a fresh and thought-provoking manner. It’s probably no surprise that I came away from my sabbatical experience believing that Lincoln was perhaps the greatest president our country has ever had. The absolute right person at the time this nation most needed his brilliance and leadership.
The staff at President Lincoln’s Cottage welcomed me for those six weeks with open arms. They believed I could be most valuable to them by getting the word out around the city that the site was now open. Along with Alison Mitchell, development coordinator for President Lincoln’s Cottage, we met with just about every concierge and bell captain in Washington (you’d never guess how many hotels there actually are in the Washington metro area, until you try to visit them all!). The reception by the concierges to this site was fabulous. Always thirsty for new information, they were particularly intrigued because this site was about Abraham Lincoln, and was only three miles from The White House. We reminded them that with 2009 being the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, there would be many events around the city throughout the year. On our travels to hotels we were delighted to learn additional Lincoln history. During his inauguration in 1861, the Lincoln family stayed at The Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Also, the Hay Adams Hotel on 16th Street is on land where close Lincoln aide, John Hay’s home once stood.
My sabbatical experience at President Lincoln’s Cottage was rich and satisfying. Once we enter the working world, seldom if ever does one get the opportunity to set your daily responsibilities aside and delve into learning something of personal interest. Spending six weeks engrossed in learning about this fascinating man and decisions he was grappling with at a critical period in America’s history was truly inspirational.