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A Place for Authenticity at Lincoln Cottage 

12-09-2015 17:35

What is authenticity at a historic place? One might speak of an authentic portrayal of society, authentic reproduction furniture, or authentic ethnic food, but these are interpretations, copies, or recipes that can be repeated any place at will. Authenticity as concerns a historic place with existing physical material is different. A place with authenticity must have some reality that has survived from a past time. A built thing, be it a car, landscape feature, or whole building, is authentic only if it retains a high percentage of material that is essentially unaltered.

Authenticity as concerns a building is a relative thing, though, because the amount of it present can be variable. Historic preservation professionals often use another term, integrity, to describe the amount of authenticity, because there is an embodied truth and honesty within a physical thing when it is authentic. Something authentic is said to have high integrity. A historic place that is authentic usually is considered to have higher cultural value than a comparable place with less integrity. Unaltered building fabric is appealing because it has unassailable integrity. For confirmation, ask a house museum professional how often visitors want to be assured that the furniture is authentic and genuine. While visitors are tolerant of reproductions, real antiques that were used by the past occupants of the house engender greater satisfaction. There is always a slight disappointment and a little skepticism if things are otherwise.

There is a little-known place within Washington, D.C., about three miles northeast of the White House and on axis with the U.S. Capitol, where several presidents of the United States resided seasonally during the second half of the 19th century. This place, which functioned something like today’s Camp David in Maryland, was purchased and developed to be a Soldiers’ Home in 1851. Now it is called the Armed Forces Retirement Home, an independent federal agency, with nearly 1,200 in residence. In the early 1860s, when the nation was engaged in the Civil War and Washington was ringed by more than 65 forts, fewer than 200 retired enlisted soldiers lived as “inmates” at the Home.

Being the third highest point in Washington, comprising 300 acres, and having a gothic revival style “cottage” on its grounds, the site attracted the interest of President Abraham Lincoln and his family. President Lincoln lived there seasonally from 1862 through 1864, commuting to work daily on horseback or by carriage. Added together, Lincoln spent nearly one quarter of his presidency working from the Soldiers’ Home.

In 2000 President Clinton designated the Cottage and immediate environs to be the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument.

Also in 2000 the Armed Forces Retirement Home began a formal partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The partnership outlines goals for the National Trust to create one of the premier historic places in the country for education on the Lincoln presidency. This Cottage where Lincoln resided during the drafting of the Emancipation Proclamation has overwhelming significance, and is the last great, untouched Lincoln site in the country. The National Trust has completed or commissioned tremendous quantities of new research, assessments, and planning reports; led focused physical investigations; convened numerous advisory committees; and commenced a comprehensive interpretive planning process. As this process has advanced, the subject of authenticity has become a background theme to the development of the main objective -- providing a transformative educational experience.

Authenticity and the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument

Over the years, the Cottage where President Lincoln resided has been treated with great respect, and it survives largely intact from the period of his occupancy. But layers of newer materials such as paint and flooring have built up on the interior, and some architectural features have been slightly modified or removed for the various functions the Cottage has served since Lincoln’s assassination. In most instances, these changes can be peeled back or cut away to reveal earlier, surviving material that has been encapsulated for a century or more. This layer from a past time is authentic substance from the Lincoln period, and it provides a palpable connection between the modern-day visitor and the past.

As the research and investigation has proceeded on the Lincoln Cottage, casual observations of visitors who tour through the building have provoked the National Trust to consider a new manner of preserving this historic place. Visitors’ reactions to the Cottage in its current unrestored condition -- responding to it as if it were an undiscovered relic or some form of buried treasure -- spurred the new thinking. Many visitors profess to a pleasant feeling, perhaps a type of wonderment, sometimes described as a “shiver.” Visitors get this feeling when genuine Lincoln-era material is noted, and especially when there is contact with certain components of the building. Features such as the fireplace mantels, handrails, stair treads, paints, and floors that survive from the mid-19th century are a source of interest and excitement for visitors.

Whatever the reasons behind this “shiver,” the value of its significance should not be overlooked or dismissed. One must remember that a historic place like the Lincoln Cottage is developed and opened to the public for educational purposes. Anything that advances the educational aspect of the mission should be retained or enhanced. This shiver, this very slight alteration of the visitors’ emotional state, can have tremendous positive effects:

• First, the visitors can realize, perhaps only unconsciously, that things built in the past are a form of evidence, a primary source that should be studied, understood, and retained for the future. This recognition fosters an appreciation of historic places as the tangible remains of history.

• Second, the visitors can experience a sense of wonderment and childlike discovery that momentarily suspends time and disbelief, in which past events and people are suddenly recognized in a more immediate manner, and the simple piece of wood or marble that lacked any significant meaning seconds ago transforms into a precious relic that “witnessed” great events.

• Third, the accretions, or layers of time, from periods before and after Lincoln’s occupancy, and the patterns of wear on those layers, can deepen visitors’ appreciation of the passage of time.

• And finally, the exposure of authentic material can add depth and weight to the visitors’ learning experience because it fosters a direct connection to the past without mediation or interpretation.

Restoration Reconsidered

Due to the nature of the historic preservation field over the past few decades, there is a natural tendency to consider thorough restoration of a site like the Lincoln Cottage as the best and most appropriate treatment. A restoration that turns the hands on the clock of time back to the way things were during Lincoln’s occupancy would be technically difficult, but perhaps feasible, and could offer a wonderful representation of architectural finishes in the pristine condition they likely would have been in when Lincoln lived there. But there would be missed opportunities and certain downsides to this approach. A restoration conceals earlier paint under fresh coats; fills in missing gaps with new, sometimes conjectural, material; and creates an overall appearance that lacks patina or any sense of age. In the process, the relic, our buried treasure in a perpetual state of discovery, is given up to a clean and neat version of what we suppose Lincoln would have seen.

The pristine condition creates a potentially “inauthentic” visitor experience because it is so fresh and new. Almost any restoration treatment has an inherent aspect of conjecture, in part because it usually obscures and sometimes destroys authentic substance in an effort to “lock in” on one particular moment in time. The feeling of age is often removed by restoration because the intent is to look fresh and new. Further, a restoration often displays a conceit, or perhaps hubris, of the professional team that creates it. We do not actually know what Lincoln saw in 1862-64 and never will. But at the Lincoln Cottage today, a lot of the real stuff is still available for the public to see and enjoy, so why risk a conjectural conceit?

The benefits of good restoration must not be too quickly dismissed either. Although always imbued with some guesswork, restoration can be a good and appropriate treatment under the right circumstances. The first and most important criterion of good restoration is knowledge. Conjecture is bad in restoration, and past a certain point, completely unacceptable. Stewards of historic places, like all teachers of history, have an obligation to be truthful. We can fill in minor, missing gaps here and there, but broad fabrication would run counter to the principles of good scholarship and proper education in a free society. There is nothing wrong with historical fiction when openly acknowledged, but it cannot be the basis for physical changes at a historic site that bills itself as a place where real history happened.

Accurate knowledge based on primary sources coupled with solid physical evidence can result in a high degree of certainty about how something appeared at an earlier time. Photos and drawings are better evidence than narrative accounts, but when missing material or finishes must be recreated, absolute certainty is never possible no matter how good the primary sources. With good knowledge a restoration can be deemed technically feasible, but not necessarily desirable or appropriate. There are more things to consider because no restoration can be attained without penalty. The gains require losses, because the later periods must be physically removed or otherwise expunged from the record.

To be desirable, the restored thing must offer something which the existing condition cannot achieve. Posed as a question, the would-be restorers of historic sites should ask themselves if they could achieve their educational objectives without restoration. If the answer is yes, stop the process here and save yourself any further aggravation and expense. If the answer is no, because the thing requires restoration to be properly understood or appreciated, then the more tricky issue of appropriateness must be addressed.

This is a subjective zone, but basically one must weigh the loss of the later fabric against the gain of the period to be restored. As the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards remind us, the later fabric has likely gained historical significance in its own right. The record of change over time, the diachronic value of historic places as historian David Lowenthal describes it, is a powerful thing that merits proper consideration and treatment.

At Lincoln Cottage, there are good reasons to restore some interior rooms that might pass the test for restoration treatment described above. Although the investigation is still in progress, we can safely assume for this article that we will have sufficient knowledge in some rooms for a restoration to be technically feasible without excessive conjecture. Certainly visitors would gain much educational value if they could understand a little more about how the place really looked when Lincoln was present.

We will never have furnishings, we don’t know what was kept where, and wallpaper scraps have not yet been (and may never be) found, so a full interior restoration, with all the trappings, cannot be achieved. But the architecture of some rooms could be restored. Period, reproduction furniture could be installed in a few rooms as a sample of how things might have looked in the 1860s. Yes, this would be conjectural, but perhaps successful as part of an interpretive exhibit if honestly presented. Reproductions are nice because visitors can touch and sit on things, plus the climate management approach does not have to accommodate priceless, antique objects.

As to the question of overall appropriateness for restoration, there may be some cause for concern. Several other presidents used the site after Lincoln, and removal of all the layers in all the rooms would deny the story of historical progression that connects today to a chain of yesterdays.

The National Trust could justifiably push forward in the direction of a restoration at Lincoln Cottage. But maybe we should not be so hasty to make what appears to be a simple choice. A full interior restoration, if deemed feasible, desirable, and appropriate could always be done at a later date anyway. The authentic stuff is here now, and could never again be brought back to its current state after a restoration. So why not take the opportunity to deliberately explore an innovative philosophy for the treatment of a historic site?

But if not a total restoration of the interior, then what physical treatment is appropriate as well as comprehensible? A 100 percent exposure (without restoration) of all that survives from the Lincoln period and complete removal of material from all subsequent periods is neither feasible nor desirable. The result at Lincoln Cottage would display too many gaps and holes, plus swaths of missing material including such essential items as the steps that carry one from the entrance door up to the first floor. From the visitors’ perspective, the appearance would probably be incomprehensible. Plus, a removal of subsequent layers would destroy the context and deny the meaning that can be derived from viewing the layers of change that so eloquently demonstrate the passage of time.

Top Layer Conservation at Drayton Hall

The standard range of treatments for historic museum properties in the U.S. does not include selective exposure of authentic substance. The closest conventional treatment would be “preservation,” as defined by The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties (rev. 1995).

A frequently cited example of this treatment is at Drayton Hall in South Carolina where the objective is purely to preserve the existing condition (the top layer of history) with as little modification as possible, as it was donated to the National Trust in 1975. This approach works brilliantly at Drayton Hall because it is an authentic survivor. This is perhaps its single greatest attribute and may account for its stunning appeal as a historic site. Earthquakes, hurricanes, the Civil War, and seven generations of Drayton family occupation have caused some changes, but none that diminish its meaning or cultural value. The main house has been maintained in its near original condition (first built 1738-42) without electricity, plumbing, or any other modern mechanical systems or utilities. With the building left unfurnished, the architecture has the strength to stand alone as a resource. The house is the primary artifact on the site.

Back in 1975, scholars and preservation professionals convened to establish an appropriate philosophy that would guide the National Trust in the care and stewardship of this unusual site. They came up with the term “sensitive stabilization.” By this they meant that there should be no restoration, only conservation of the building in the basic condition it was received by the National Trust. Today the staff conference room at the site contains a framed poster on which are written the words: “We choose to preserve Drayton Hall as it has come down to us through seven generations of Draytons rather than to restore it to any particular period in time.” This treatment philosophy fits the Secretary’s Standards for Preservation almost perfectly.

The preservation philosophy as practiced at Drayton Hall is not without minor complications and contradictions. One must remember that no treatment is ever 100 percent pure and true. Little, necessary evils creep in to accommodate the public use, for instance. Rugs cover portions of the floor to protect it from abrasion. Mud daubers (a type of flying insect) occasionally build nests on the interior walls. If removed, paint comes off with the nest material. If left in place, the house is visually changed and appears poorly maintained, as well. The paint on the walls, all surviving from the 1920s or earlier, is flaking off or missing at most locations. The current paint consolidation project adds modern chemicals to hold it in place and stave off inevitable entropy. And hidden from view, a variety of structural interventions allow visitors to safely traverse the great hall of the second floor without breaking the plaster ceiling of the room below. Even electricity has crept into the basement, powering the computer that runs the climate management program, telling staff when to open and close doors and windows for ventilation and prevention of condensation. But all of this has been done with great care and sensitivity for the overarching preservation philosophy.

And so the house remains in its authentic form. The various changes wrought by its history remain as layers of time, sometimes easily read and other times buried beneath the surface, but at all times as it existed in 1974 when it came under the control of the National Trust. Or, at least as close to that ideal as can be achieved in a hot, humid climate and with 70,000 visitors per year.

Authenticity and a New Type of Preservation Treatment

Unlike at Drayton Hall, a decision to conserve Lincoln Cottage as it was when the National Trust, in partnership with the Armed Forces Retirement Home, commenced plans to make it a public resource would bring quite a disappointing result. The existing fluorescent light fixtures, vinyl tile floors, and exposed plumbing all combine to detract from the more important historic qualities of the interior. And a true preservation treatment as practiced at Drayton Hall would mean leaving the building with these modern intrusions and without any exposure of earlier material covered by subsequent paints and finishes.

So the traditionally accepted restoration treatment is acceptable and perhaps feasible, but is not desirable or appropriate for the whole interior. And the preservation treatment as practiced at Drayton Hall is not appropriate for Lincoln Cottage. An innovative treatment is in order, and authenticity may hold the key to a workable approach. If a new line of thinking is to develop around the premise that authentic substance can be selectively exposed and conserved (but not restored to an earlier appearance), several questions must be answered.

• How to give visitors access to authentic substance, so that all may enjoy the benefits of its exposure, yet protect it from excessive wear? Historic sites like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City struggle with this dilemma on a daily basis, as visitor traffic grinds down authentic stairs, wall finishes, and floors.

• How to treat the post- Lincoln-period layers with respect and yet not allow them to detract from the more significant Lincoln period? Although we put a much higher value on the Lincoln period of occupancy, all the layers have historic significance.

• How to rationalize the appearance of the interior, which will deviate from accepted preservation norms by exposing layers “that never existed together historically” (from Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Restoration, #7)? Or, put another way, how to determine the extent and location of exposures to reveal meaningful fabric in a purposeful manner? The areas revealed must be carefully chosen in full acknowledgement that the objectives are to maximize the educational value and potential for a transforming experience.

Proposed Treatment of the Historic Place

In addition to all of the above, one other issue needs resolution -- the exterior treatment. Because the exterior of a building is exposed to the weather, authentic paint layers from Lincoln’s time cannot be exposed without rapid loss of the paint. The same is true at Drayton Hall, where, even though the philosophy calls for pure conservation only, the exterior is repainted and brick pointing is cared for on a normal maintenance cycle. On the exterior of Lincoln Cottage, there is little authenticity to be revealed that is not already evident, so it is a nice candidate for a restoration. Unlike the interior, several photographs from the 1860s period even corroborate the abundant physical evidence. Only two significant alterations have been made to the exterior since the 1860s -- the extension of a porch and the addition of a small elevator shaft on the west side.

Given all the factors, the exterior is unquestionably a good match for a standard restoration treatment. No matter what treatment approach is selected, even minimal preservation, visitors would still see new paint on doors, windows, and wood trim; new roofing material; and new stucco over the majority of the facades. The only question is which historical period should be represented with the paint colors. In this case the answer is easy -- the colors from the period of Lincoln’s occupancy.

Regarding the more difficult questions for the interior treatment, more work still needs to be done before any decisions can be made. Current thinking calls for removal of most of the infrastructure that was installed within the past few decades, such as fluorescent lighting, wall-to-wall carpets, and an exposed fire suppression system, because these distractions will disrupt the educational objectives. A few rooms can be architecturally restored and furnished with reproductions so visitors, as part of their guided tour, can gain a limited understanding of how the Lincolns used the Cottage. More physical investigation and a lot of documentation will need to precede any restoration.

As part of the “authentic substance” treatment the vast majority of the house can be retained almost “as is,” except with selective exposures left open to show all the authentic layers of the past. In these zones, the educational story would not be about architecture or living style but about people, events, and ideas. When completed, the National Trust hopes the President Lincoln and Soldiers’ Home National Monument will be highly innovative and unlike any standard house museum in operation.

Due to the overwhelming significance and national monument status of this site, an open process of decision-making needs to be followed. This article is one of several efforts in this direction. The National Trust has already hosted numerous planning meetings with a wide variety of experts in the fields of history, preservation, and museum management. The inclusion of outside advisors will continue as we focus on plans for the physical treatment of the interior. An advisory committee on authenticity at historic places will be formed, and if time and funding allow, the work of this group will include a broader exploration of the topic which will spark discussion across all the related fields. If creativity and innovative thought can result in historic places that are presented in more meaningful and relevant ways, that would be a welcome side effect to our work at Lincoln Cottage.

Publication Date: Fall 2003


Author(s):William A. Dupont, AIA