This bike ride took me to Ford’s Theatre, a building with a rich history, located at 511 10th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown Neighborhood. The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the second meeting house of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, after the congregation moved, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1862, but was rebuilt the following year. The new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, hosting various plays and stages performances. But its initial run as a theatre would not last long.
More than any of the plays or performances hosted there, the theatre is perhaps best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House signaling the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a performance of a play entitled “Our American Cousin” at the theatre. During the performance, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln. Booth then jumped onto the stage, and cried out “Sic semper tyrannis” before escaping through the back of the theatre. The mortally wounded President was taken across the street to The Petersen House, where he died the following day.
Strangely enough, on November 9, 1863 (151 years ago last night), two years before the assassination, Lincoln had been seated in the very same seat at Ford’s Theatre, where he watched Booth perform in the popular play, “The Marble Heart.” An avid theatre-goer, Lincoln was known to have attended at least a dozen performances at the theatre. At this performance, Lincoln was impressed with the young actor’s energy and passed along a message backstage asking if he could meet the actor. Booth, an outspoken supporter of the South, declined the request.
Then on the night on which he would be assassinated, President Lincoln told William Crook, his bodyguard, about a dream. “Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.” Crook beseeched him not to go to Ford’s theater that night, but Lincoln demurred saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be killed that night for when they departed for the theatre, Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook instead of “goodnight.” He would be dead the following day.
Following the assassination, the U.S. Government appropriated the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation. And less than three years after opening as a theatre, an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.
After that, the building was used as an office building, and served as a facility for the War Department. Then in 1893, part of the building collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 22 clerks and injuring another 68. The building was repaired, but was used as a government warehouse after that.
Decades later, and more than 100 years after President Lincoln’s death, it was again renovated, and then re-opened as a theatre in 1968. During the 2000’s it was renovated yet again, opening on February 12, 2009, in commemoration of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today Ford’s Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as one of two buildings which comprise the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the other being the Petersen House. It remains a working theatre, producing plays, musicals and other works that entertain while often examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy. And in addition to being an active theatre, it also houses world-class museum, and a learning center named the Center for Education and Leadership.