From the Archives: Ford’s Theatre in Diorama

How do you show people what was once in a space without carrying out a full restoration? The photo above, from our book Images of America: Ford’s Theatre, shows one solution—a diorama—that the National Park Service devised when the interior of Ford’s was a museum bearing no resemblance to its previous identity as a theatre.

Black and white image from the Ford's Theatre stage looking out into the 1968 renovated Ford's Theatre audience. Image shows individual wooden chairs in the the audience seating areas and the Presidential Box above the stage. The Box is decorated similar to when Lincoln and his guests attended the theatre in April 1865.
Image of Ford's Theatre after its 1968 renovation. National Park Service image.

Following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865, the government procured the theatre from John T. Ford and then gutted the building, which then  housed federal offices, the Army Medical Museum, and, after a deadly interior collapse in 1893, storage for federal records.

In 1932, the new Lincoln Museum opened inside the building. This was the culmination of an effort by the director of Public Buildings, Ulysses S. Grant III, and Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone, son of the Lincolns’ guests on that fateful night.

In the planning stages for making a place into a publicly accessible historic site, there are always questions about restoration. These are especially pertinent when, as in the case of Ford’s Theatre, the appearance of the original has been significantly altered or disappeared completely. Should the building/place be restored to how it appeared at a particular time? If so, what time period?

Examples abound, but here’s a small sampling of how a few other historic sites have answered those questions:

Our Civil War Washington Teacher Fellows program partner site, President Lincoln’s Cottage, didn’t have photographs or inventories of the interior of the house when the Lincolns spent their summers there during the Civil War. So, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which undertook an eight-year restoration, chose to keep the rooms sparse. Instead, the site’s interpretation focuses on Lincoln’s ideas. President James Madison’s Montpelier plantation house, meanwhile, went through renovations and expansions by later owners, to the point where the original seemed lost. In 2003, though, the National Trust for Historic Preservation made the decision to remove the mansion’s additions and restore the site to how it looked during the time the Madisons occupied it.

The Alamo (disclosure: I once worked there as a historical interpreter) was originally a Spanish mission before it became a fort. In the decade after the famous 1836 battle, most of the original compound deteriorated and became a source of scavenged building material for San Antonio residents. Today, only the front wall of the Long Barrack and the mission church walls are original, while the rest of the original footprint is marked by lines in Alamo Plaza.

Stage view of Ford's Theatre at its 1968 reopening. Image shows the stage itself with a large painted mural of curtains, designed to appear like the performances of "Our American Cousin" from April 1865
The view from the orchestra section in the renovated Ford's Theatre showing new theatre seating, painted mural stage curtains. National Park Service image.

Both Grant and Rathbone answered the question about a full restoration of Ford’s Theatre with an emphatic “no.” Like many people in previous decades who had opposed even a museum on the site, they feared restoring the interior to its 1865 appearance would emphasize a moment of national trauma.

So for the next three decades, the interior of Ford’s Theatre retained the three-floor configuration put into place after the assassination. The first floor housed a museum, with artifacts in display cases. Many visitors, though, reported feeling confused, having difficulty imagining what the space looked like the night the Lincolns attended.

To compensate, the National Park Service, which took over stewardship of the building in 1933, eventually installed what you see above: a diorama depicting the theatre’s former interior. Like the outline in Alamo Plaza today, black lines along the floor of the museum showed the location of the stage and the presidential box.

The Lincoln Museum remained in the original Ford’s Theatre building for another three decades, while the idea of a full restoration eventually gained momentum. Finally, in 1965, the process began. The National Park Service used Mathew Brady’s post-assassination photos to bring the interior back to its original appearance.

When you visit a historic site, how do you feel about restoration? If the original has been lost, do you prefer to see a restored version? Is a diorama better? What about a virtual reconstruction? What historic sites have you visited that restored the original appearance particularly well?

David McKenzie is Associate Director of Interpretive Resources at Ford’s Theatre. He is also a part-time History Ph.D. student at George Mason University, studying 19th-century U.S. and Latin American history, as well as digital history. Before coming to Ford’s in October 2013, he worked at the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, The Design Minds, Inc. and the Alamo.