Ford’s Theatre History
1833: The First Baptist Church of Washington is constructed. It is also known as the “Tenth Street Baptist Church,” in order to distinguish it from other churches in the Washington, D.C., area. It is a fairly large church with a regular congregation attending Sunday services.
1859: The First Baptist Church decides to merge with the nearby Fourth Baptist Church in order to gain a larger congregation. The building is then vacated and remains unoccupied for two years, needing minor repairs.
1861: John T. Ford, a theatre manager originally from Baltimore, leases out the abandoned First Baptist Church for five years with an option to buy at the end of that period. After signing the lease, Ford rents the theatre to George Christy who performs there with a group of minstrels to critical and audience acclaim until 1862. Christy advertises the theatre as “The George Christy Opera House,” since it is unnamed at this point. Christy does not make any interior structural changes to the building, and the basic seating structure, including church pews and a single balcony, remain intact. Photo of John T. Ford courtesy of Wikimedia.
1862: On February 28, Ford closes the theatre for renovations to remodel the stage for theatrical and musical productions. Ford spends more than $10,000 on renovations and reopens the theatre on March 19. He names the theatre “Ford’s Athenaeum.” Ford’s Athenaeum begins to gain momentum and a steady stream of revenue, but on December 30, the original exterior is destroyed by a fire caused by a defective gas meter. Luckily, no one is physically hurt in the fire, but Ford estimates his damages to total around $20,000 – a huge amount for this time. Image of Ford's Theatre courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpbh-03304.
1863: John T. Ford builds a new theatre, calling it “Ford’s New Theatre.” The grand opening takes place on August 27 with a sold-out performance of The Naiad Queen. The theatre quickly gains momentum and becomes a popular spot for local residents, tourists and even Abraham Lincoln to enjoy a variety of shows. In November, Lincoln attends a performance at Ford’s of The Marble Heart, starring a then 24-year-old John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln will attend Ford’s a total of eight times within the next two years.
1864: John T. Ford remains the manager and proprietor of the building, and continues to restore throughout the summer. He hires a new crew and reputable actors full time. The theatre remains very popular and continues to generate a high amount of revenue, especially when a famous actor appears in a particular play, such as Booth. Photo of Ford's Theatre playbill courtesy of Wikipedia.
Spring of 1865: On April 14 Lincoln, his wife Mary, and a few guests share a box stage left at Ford’s for a performance of Our American Cousin. John T. Ford’s brother, James, is left in charge of the theatre on this evening. During intermission, Lincoln’s bodyguard goes to the lobby bar for a drink but does not return for the start of Act 3. John Wilkes Booth enters Ford’s through a backstage door with the help of a stagehand and proceeds to Lincoln’s box. At around 10:15 p.m., during the beginning of Act 3 Scene 2, Booth aims his gun and shoots Lincoln in the back of the head by his left ear. Lincoln is rushed to the Petersen House across the street where he succumbs to his wounds early the next morning. Booth escapes until he is apprehended by authorities 12 days later. Photo of Ford's Theatre playbill by Carol Highsmith.
Summer of 1865: Following Lincoln’s assassination, military guards are posted at the theatre and access is permitted only by a special pass from the Judge Advocate’s Office, War Department. John T. Ford receives official permission to re-open the theatre after the hanging of the assassination conspirators occurs on July 7. On July 10, Ford plans to premiere The Octoroon and sells more than 200 tickets for this performance. Troops of soldiers are stationed at the entrance to the theatre to help avoid any issues that may arise. After receiving an anonymous letter threatening to burn the theatre down if it reopens as a place of amusement, Ford is forced to refund all patrons. Shortly thereafter, the theatre is taken over by the government and converted into a three-story office building. Ford is paid $1,500 per month for the lease of his theatre until Congress can purchase it from him. Image of Ford's Theatre courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-23872.
1866: In July, after leasing the theatre for just over one year, Congress pays Ford $88,000 as a final settlement from the Treasury Department for the purchase of the structure. After the building is taken over, the Quartermaster General begins to convert the theatre into a fully functional three-story office building for use by the government. The building houses the Army Medical Museum, the Office of the Surgeon General and the War Department.
1893: On June 9, a 40-foot section of the front of the building collapses from the third floor hurling men, desks and file cases into the cellar of the building. Twenty-two government employees are killed in the confusion, while 65 others are injured. Further investigation shows the cause of the collapse was due to overloading the floor and negligence of the building contractor, who was excavating under pillars located in the cellar without sufficient support to the floors above. After the investigation is concluded, Ford’s is closed as an office structure.
1931-1933: Over this two-year period, the building is turned over to the Department of the Interior. It becomes known as the “Lincoln Museum,” and the first floor of the building is open to the public. On June 10, 1933, the building is transferred to the National Park Service, which it remains affiliated with today. Image of Ford's Theatre courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ61-106122.
1968: In January, Ford’s Theatre reopens officially as a National Historic Site and a working theatre. A dedication ceremony and gala headed by Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda and other celebrities occurs to commemorate this landmark. On February 13, Ford’s Theatre is officially reopened to the general public. In April, She Stoops to Conquer marks the first performance to occur in more than a hundred years at Ford’s. Photo of Ford's Theatre by Carol M. Highsmith.
2007: In August, Ford’s Theatre closes for it first renovation and restoration since 1968. The renovation will take around 18 months to complete. The plan includes improvements to the heating, air-conditioning, lighting and sound systems. New restrooms, a new lobby, an upgraded museum, and the addition of an elevator are also scheduled to improve the interior.
2009: In February, the renovations are completed and Ford’s Theatre reopens. In July, Ford’s Theatre Museum officially opens to the public. The renovated theatre features new seats, upgraded sound and lighting systems, renovated restrooms, and enhanced accessibility with elevators. A new lobby with concession stand and a Board Room for special events has also been built. In honor of the Lincoln Bicentennial, Ford’s Theatre commissions and produces the world premiere of The Heavens Are Hung in Black, a play by James Still chronicling Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during a time of personal and professional crisis. Ford’s also hosts a grand opening gala attended by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama and featuring appearances by Katie Couric, Kelsey Grammar, Jeffrey Wright and countless others. Audra Macdonald and Jessye Norman performed during the gala. Photo of Ford's Theatre by Maxwell MacKenzie.
2012: In February 2012, Ford’s Theatre opened the new Center for Education and Leadership, where visitors can explore the lasting effects of Lincoln’s presidency. Two floors of the exhibit address the immediate aftermath of the assassination and feature funeral artifacts that have never before been displayed for public viewing. Two floors of education studios house post-visit workshops, after-school programs and a section for teacher professional development. A distance-learning lab allows Ford’s to engage students and teachers nationwide through the use of state-of-the-art technology. A Leadership Gallery floor is used as a short-term exhibit, lecture and reception space. The opening of the Center completes the Ford’s Theatre expansion project to give visitors an enhanced experience on Lincoln’s life and legacy. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.