Photos from the Archives: The Revival of Theatre at Ford’s Theatre

Fords's Theatre after its 1968 restoration. Ford's Theatre Society photo.

Today Ford’s Theatre stages four theatrical productions a year; but this reintroduction of live shows is only a relatively recent development. On January 30, 1968, performers appeared on stage for the first time since the night of Lincoln’s assassination. The photo above shows Ford’s as it looked in 1968, prepared to entertain live audiences once again.

When John T. Ford first opened his theatre in 1862, he hoped it would be home to prominent actors and a place of entertainment for the nation’s capital city. Lincoln’s assassination three years later derailed this plan and forced Ford to permanently close his doors. After its sale to the federal government, the gutted building served as offices and a museum before becoming storage space after a tragic internal collapse. One could imagine this would be frustrating to John T. Ford after all the time and money he spent making his theatre so grand.

Renewed interest in the theatre building’s preservation brought about its transfer to the National Park Service in 1931. Although various proposals were floated through the years to restore the building to its 1865 appearance, it retained the warehouse-like, three-story interior layout for more than 30 years.

An international funding campaign and increased awareness after President Kennedy’s assassination renewed interest in the theatre and restoration began in January 1965. The initial plans made no mention of reintroducing live theatre, but one determined woman sought to change this.

As explained in Images of America: Ford’s Theatre, in 1965, Frankie Childers Hewitt, a lobbyist and politically connected woman who had worked with both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, asked Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall if live theatre would be presented in the restored theatre. He told her, “No, the government can’t run a theatre.” Hewitt feared that the absence of live theatre would turn the building into a monument to John Wilkes Booth’s crime rather than a testament to Lincoln’s legacy and his appreciation for the arts.

So, Hewitt built a partnership with the National Park Service to help found Ford’s Theatre Society, which still produces all the theatre’s plays today. Its continued life as a working theatre makes Ford’s Theatre a unique historic site in the way it blends the past with the present. Visitors can learn about Lincoln’s life in the museum and see the site of his death in the theatre, but they can also attend plays.

Photographs taken by famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady immediately after the assassination made possible reconstruction of the theatre to its 1865 appearance. The 1865-like atmosphere allows people to feel the chilling effects of watching theatre in the same building where President Lincoln watched his last play, as well as the warmth and joy that Lincoln experienced whenever he attended the theatre. Sitting in a theatre that looks as it did the night of Lincoln’s assassination transcends time and invokes Lincoln’s last moments in an innovative and interactive way.

Historical memory plays a large part in creating monuments. The Lincoln Memorial on the Mall, dedicated in 1922, stands as a majestic tribute to Lincoln as the savior of the nation, whereas the Emancipation Memorial in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, dedicated in 1876, portrays him as the Great Emancipator. Ford’s Theatre, interprets both the site of Lincoln’s assassination as a national tragedy and the evolution of his legacy. The Theatre’s museum and the Aftermath galleries in the Center for Education and Leadership go further, exploring Lincoln as a leader. The goal is that visitors understand how Lincoln’s actions left their mark on the nation today. You can learn more about the roles of these memorials in a previous blog post.

The existence of live theatre also reinforces a dedication to exploring Lincoln’s human side as well. As an avid theatre lover, Lincoln visited Ford’s twelve times during his presidency. We can never know, but perhaps he would have despaired that his death also killed this theatre. Possibly Frankie Hewitt was right that an empty stage at Ford’s would turn the focus on Booth. Fortunately for future generations, live theatre is here to stay. The Lincoln Legacy Project extends this theory, using theatrical productions, educational forums, and social events to promote dialogue about tolerance, equality and acceptance—themes many of us associate with Lincoln.

Ford’s Theatre is a unique historic site. Its thorough commitment to Lincoln’s life beyond his death, ensures that this place is “where Lincoln’s legacy lives.”

For more images of the early Ford’s Theatre, check out Dave Taylor’s post on BoothieBarn.com about the 1960s reconstruction of Ford’s Theatre.

For more information, read The Washington Post’s article about the second wave of renovations in 2008.

Anna Snyder is the Digital Public History Intern at Ford’s Theatre. She is a first-year graduate student in American University’s Public History program.