Photos from the Archives: An Open Office Plan at Ford’s Theatre

Today, open office plans have become a trend—and have garnered increasing amounts of controversy. As this archival photo of workers in the former Ford’s Theatre space shows, though, working in an open office is not just a product of the Google age.

As previous blog posts and our Images of America: Ford’s Theatre book detail, no theatre performances took place at Ford’s Theatre between the night of Lincoln’s assassination and the renovation and reopening of the theatre in 1968.

Instead, in the wake of arson threats, theatre owner John T. Ford leased, then sold, the building to the Department of War (merged with the Department of the Navy in 1947 to form the Department of Defense). The War Department gutted the theatre and transformed it into a three-story office building. Different parts of that department moved in and out over the next 28 years.

black and white photo of an 1880s office in what was the Ford's Theatre.
An 1880s image of the Ford's Theatre building when it served as a working office. National Park Service image.

Perhaps inadvertently, the Ford’s Theatre building has carried out Lincoln’s legacy since his assassination: the functions the building served during the time immediately following kept with one of Lincoln’s goals outlined in his Second Inaugural Address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Today’s Department of Veterans Affairs has used these words as its motto since 1959.

Initially the Surgeon General’s Office occupied the building. During its time there, the Surgeon General’s Office prepared its comprehensive The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion. The sheer bloodiness and immense death toll of the Civil War led to numerous medical advances; the Surgeon General’s Office used peacetime to compile and share these improvements.

Until 1887, meanwhile, the third floor housed the Army Medical Museum, in keeping with the use of the building for documenting and preserving the history of Civil War medicine.

Another part of the Surgeon General’s Office, the Record and Pension Division, became its own office in a reorganization in 1889. Its task grew so large that it eventually occupied the entire building. This office compiled records of Union soldiers’ service from the Civil War—a monumental task considering that 2,672,341 soldiers served during the four years. (Individual states kept Confederate veterans’ records.)

Although the Department of the Interior administered pensions for veterans after the Civil War—one of which is still being paid—these War Department records helped to verify who should receive payments for service, disability or death.

What was it like to work in the old theatre? There aren’t many sources that describe the workplace during the time it was an office. After all, for many, it was ordinary—literally not something to write home about.

But in 1893, disaster struck as the third floor collapsed, killing 22 workers. That event resulted in a flurry of newspaper articles—not just in Washington but around the country and even overseas—that offer a glimpse into the lives of workers. (Ironically, it was a disaster at the same building 28 years earlier—the assassination of President Lincoln—that led to the records later used to restore the theatre to its original appearance.)

A fascinating Washington Post article the day after the collapse shows a floorplan of the building as it existed in 1893, complete with the location of each worker’s desk. We see 38 desks on the first floor, 45 on the second and 43 on the third. As we can see in the above photo, too, the desks were together in long rows.

Part of the workers’ tasks was copying records onto index cards for easier filing—no simple feat in the days before copy machines. This expedited requests by making files more uniform and ensuring information was less likely to be lost. The postwar period led to a surge in requests for records—the 1895 annual report of the War Department (two years after the collapse of Ford’s) indicates the clerks of that office had to fulfill 211,129 requests.

During the time that clerks worked at the former Ford’s Theatre, concerns mounted about the safety of the building. The same Washington Post article reported:

It has borne a notorious reputation for instability among the clerks for years. The darkness of the rooms and its other disqualifications for the purpose for which it was used have been made the subject of frequent public comment.

The collapse in 1893 (discussed in our blog here) proved those worries correct. The building was mainly used for records until it became a historic site in the 1930s. No more open office, apparently.

A big thanks to Darlene Richardson, Historian of the U.S. Veterans Health Administration, for helping me understand how the offices housed at Ford’s Theatre fit into the wider picture of the post-Civil War pension system, and for sharing research about the functions of the offices.

For more information, see:

“AN HISTORIC BUILDING: When and How Built–Actors Who Appeared There–The Assassination.” The Sun (1837-1989). June 10, 1893.

“BURIED IN THE RUINS: A Government Office Collapses Without Warning.” The Washington Post (1877-1922). June 10, 1893.

“HISTORY OF THE BUILDING.: It Replaced a Church and Was Successively a Theatre, Museum, and Office.” New York Times. June 10, 1893.

“Veteran’s Pensions: Early History.” Social Welfare History Project. Accessed June 25, 2015. http://www.socialwelfarehistory.com/programs/veterans-pensions-early-history/.

“MANY NARROW ESCAPES.: A Trip for a Morning Cocktail Saved One Man’s Life.” New York Times. June 10, 1893.

Prechtel-Kluskens, Claire. “‘A Reasonable Degree of Promptitude’: Civil War Pension Application Processing, 1861–1885.” Prologue, Spring 2010. http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/spring/civilwarpension.html.

“The Colored Clerk from Virginia.” The Sun (1837-1989). June 10, 1893.

David McKenzie is Digital Projects Manager in the Education Department 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.