Highlights from the Museum: The Lincoln White House

The White House has long represented democratic power and strength. In October 1792, the cornerstone was laid and construction began based on the design of Irish-born architect James Hoban. Construction would last eight years and cost more than $230,000. With the use of slave labor, the White House would rise up in the small and dirty capital city being constructed around it. Finally, in November of 1800, John Adams would be the first president to inhabit the executive mansion. Every president after would follow his lead.

The history of the White House is much like the history of the country it serves. In August of 1814, the British set fire to many great government buildings in retaliation for American soldiers torching the Canadian capital of York. First Lady Dolly Madison would go down in history for saving a famous portrait of George Washington from the White House while the British were marching on the building, ready to set it ablaze. When the fire was extinguished, Hoban was asked to rebuild the house, and it was restored by 1817, for President James Monroe.

Flag raising at the White House by artist Alfred R. Waud. June 29, 1861. Library of Congress image: LC-DIG-ppmsca-21165.

By the time the Lincolns arrived at the White House in 1861, the building had fallen into disrepair. Mary Todd Lincoln took it upon herself to make the home a shining sign of Union strength and stability. While Mary did many needed improvements to the home, including acquiring the famous Lincoln bed, which the Lincolns never used, and purchasing the Lincoln China, she went drastically over Congress’s allotted $20,000 budget. This created a point of contention between Mary, her husband and much of Washington society.

With her excessive spending, Mary became a symbol of opulent life during a time of great suffering. She would be criticized for her elaborate shopping sprees and hosting of large parties while men were dying for freedom on dark battlefields just across the river.

Learn about Music in the Lincoln White House:

Items from the Lincoln White House including dining china and items belonging to Tad Lincoln are on display in the Ford's Theatre Museum. Photo © Maxwell MacKenzie.

Embarrassed by his wife’s expenditures, Lincoln offered to personally pay for the costs above the allotted budget, but Congress eventually found a way to absorb most of the debt incurred by Mary for upkeep of the White House.

By the end of the Civil War, the White House represented sadness and despair for Mary. While living there, Mary saw the death of one son, learned of the death of her brothers and experienced the assassination of her husband.

In the Ford’s Theatre Museum, you can see some of the items that the Lincolns possessed while living in the White House including the Lincoln China, Tad Lincoln’s toy sword, Mary’s fan and items from Abraham Lincoln’s office.

While the Lincolns’ stay in the White House came to an abrupt end, the impact they left on the home has lasted for more than 150 years.

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University. She is former Groups Sales Manager at Ford’s Theatre.

Editor’s Note: In January 2015, we explored Mary Todd Lincoln’s experiences as first lady in the world-premiere play The Widow Lincoln.