New Book: “Images of America: Ford’s Theatre”

Images of America: Ford’s Theatre, the definitive book about the 180-year history of the Ford’s Theatre building, will be published on April 7, 2014. It contains rarely seen historical images and explanatory text that tells the complete story of this iconic American building—a story that covers far more than just the tragedy of April 14, 1865. Here is a “Top Ten” list of the most fascinating things we learned, in chronological order, while researching and writing the book.

1865 image of 10th Street NW with Ford's Theatre at center. Photo courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

10.  The land on which Ford’s Theatre sits, and much of present-day downtown Washington, was originally owned by a farmer named David Burnes. President George Washington’s decision in 1790 to build the nation’s capital here increased the value of Burnes’s land exponentially, making his daughter, Marcia Burnes Van Ness, one of the nation’s wealthiest people when she inherited his estate in 1807.

9. In 1833, Van Ness sold a plot of land on 10th Street to the First Baptist Church to build a house of worship. The church was led by the Rev. Obadiah Brown, who in his spare time was a Post Office employee, chaplain of the House and Senate, and founder of the college now known as The George Washington University. The church’s mixed-race congregation included Paul Jennings, formerly enslaved as a servant of President James Madison. After buying his freedom, Jennings worked in the “Underground Railroad” movement and wrote a memoir about his time in the White House—the first “tell-all” about life with an American president.

Ford's new theatre was built originally as a baptist church. Image courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

8. After the First Baptist Church moved to a new location in 1859, it sold the building to John T. Ford, who transformed it into a theatre. This offended those people who shared American society’s then-prevailing sentiment that theatrical performances were frivolous and corrupting. Indeed, theatre had been banned in several colonies, and the Continental Congress had declared any person who attended the theatre unfit to hold public office.

7. Ford managed his theatre from 1862 to 1865, presenting 495 performances of Shakespearean plays, light comedies and musical shows during that three-year period. President Lincoln attended performances at Ford’s Theatre 10 times during his presidency, including one in 1863 starring John Wilkes Booth, who Lincoln observed glaring at him from the stage.

6. After Lincoln’s assassination, the federal government seized the building and arrested Ford and his two brothers (who ran the theatre with him) to question whether they helped Booth. The Ford brothers’ origins in Maryland (which contained many southern sympathizers), their relationship with Booth, their control over the site of the crime, and the fact that John T. Ford was in Richmond when Lincoln was killed all contributed to the government’s suspicion. After more than a month in jail, they were exonerated and released.

5. Three months after the assassination, Ford announced plans to resume productions at the theatre, triggering an uproar and threats of violent resistance. The War Department again seized Ford’s property, and in December 1865 bought it from him and transformed it into a three-story government office building.

Ford's Theatre was transformed into the Office of Records and Pensions following the Lincoln assassination. Image courtesy Ford's Theatre National Historic Site.

4. For the next 25 years, the structure housed the Office of Records and Pensions, where 500 government clerks processed Civil War veterans’ pension applications. It also housed a medical museum that displayed, among other things, part of John Wilkes Booth’s spine. In 1893, a basement construction project caused the interior of the building to collapse, killing 22 people and injuring 65 more.

3. In the 1920s, Congressman Henry Rathbone (son of the Lincolns’ guests in the Presidential Box the night Lincoln was shot), arranged for the federal government to buy an extensive collection of Lincoln memorabilia from Osborn Oldroyd, who had displayed his collection for decades at the Petersen House where Lincoln died. In 1932, Ulysses S. Grant III (grandson of General Grant, who had declined the Lincolns’ invitation to attend the fateful performance with them), the official in charge of public buildings and parks in Washington, D.C., created a museum in the former Ford’s Theatre building devoted to President Lincoln’s life displaying Oldroyd’s collection.

2. In 1945, North Dakota Senator Milton Young began a two-decade legislative campaign to restore the Ford’s Theatre building to the way it looked in 1865. As a result, the National Park Service, working from old photographs of the building and other historical materials, built an exact replica of the Civil War-era theatre during the mid-1960s. Today, only the exterior walls of the building date back to 1833.

1. The Park Service originally planned to give talks at the restored structure but present no theatrical productions. When Frankie Hewitt, a former government official with connections to the entertainment world, heard about that, she created a non-profit organization called Ford’s Theatre Society and obtained permission to produce live theatre in the historic space starting in 1968. Every president since Gerald R. Ford has attended at least one performance at the theatre.

Brian Anderson is a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has been a member of the Ford’s Theatre Society Board of Trustees since 2001.