Renovations turn tragedy into history at Ford’s Theater

On July 15 the museum at the Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D. C. reopened to the public after being closed two years for major renovations. This state of the art attraction is sure to quickly become a “DC Must-See.”

Ford’s Theatre was the site of Lincoln’s Assassination on April 14, 1865. Five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, the Lincolns attended a performance of Our American Cousin in this modern three story brick building. Well known actor John Wilkes Booth, who was also a Confederate supporter, shot Lincoln during the performance. Lincoln’s mortally wounded body was carried out of the theatre to the nearby home of William Petersen, a tailor, who also had a rooming house. It was here that the president died the next morning.

Producer John Ford, Ford’s Theatre owner, planned to reopen his theatre within a few months but public sentiment prevented him from doing so. He sold the theatre to the federal government in 1866 and it was used as an office building. In 1893 tragedy struck again when the third floor collapsed and 22 government employees were killed.

The Petersen House remained in the family until 1878 when it was purchased by newspaper publisher Louis Schade who used it as an office and residence. Visitors showing up to see the room where Lincoln died proved such a distraction that he moved out in 1893 and rented his residence to Osborn Oldroyd.

An avid Lincoln collector, Oldroyd created a Lincoln museum and opened to the public. Three years later, the federal government purchased Petersen House but allowed Oldroyd to live there and operate his museum.

In 1926 the federal government purchased his collection of 3,000 items he had obtained over 60 years and moved it to the Ford’s Theatre in 1932. In 1933 the National Park Service (NPS) took over management of the museum. Following World War II in the late 1940s there was a resurgence of public interest in Ford’s Theatre.  During the 1950s and1960s funding was provided by the U.S. Congress and major renovations were made.  After staying “dark” for more than a century, Ford’s Theatre opened to the public in 1968.

Today, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, which includes Petersen House, is operated through a partnership with Ford’s Theatre Society and the NPS. Its $50 million renovation project has been funded with private donations including $5 million from ExxonMobil.

“The new Ford’s Theatre Museum is designed to engage and educate visitors about Abraham Lincoln’s time in Washington from his arrival by train to the night of his tragic assassination at Ford’s Theatre,” says Paul Tetreault, Director of the Ford’s Theatre Society. “Our hope is by visiting the museum and theatre visitors will uncover the extraordinary legacy that makes Lincoln a leader for the ages.”

The renovated building now includes modern amenities including elevator access throughout the 6,868 facility. New exhibits include a display on Civil War milestones and generals as well as a video demonstrating Lincoln’s role as emancipator and orator. Valuable artifacts showcased include political campaign memorabilia, the derringer pistol used by John Wilkes Booth, a reward poster and Booth’s diary.

Once visitors have finished their self guided museum tour they enter the theatre for a 30 minute presentation given by a staff member from either the National Park Service or the Ford’s Theatre Society. After this program they exit the theatre and cross the street to tour the Petersen House. Re-admission to the museum is not allowed at this point.

Admission to the museum, 30 minute theatre program and Petersen House tour  is free but a ticket must be reserved in advance. There is a charge for theatre performances.

Ford’s Theatre
511 Tenth St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20004
(202) 347-4833