February is the month of the presidents. While Presidents Day celebrates the birthday of George Washington (Feb. 22), the month also includes Abraham Lincoln's birthdate—Feb. 12, 1809, in a one-room cabin in Kentucky. The city of Washington celebrates Lincoln's life and legacy this month and year-round with exhibitions, artifacts, souvenirs, a neoclassical memorial and even a restaurant. Where editors scout the sights.
President-elect Lincoln arrived here for his inauguration February 23, 1861. After he checked into “Willard’s Hotel,” guests recognized the “tall and awkward form” and commented on his “new and stylish hat.” March 4, after his inaugural address and a parade, President Lincoln returned to Willard’s (now the Willard InterContinental Hotel) and lunched, according to hotel records, on mock turtle soup, corned beef and cabbage, parsley potatoes and blackberry pie. Near its northeast entrance, the hotel displays the $773.75 hotel bill that Lincoln paid with funds from his first presidential paycheck.
Man in the Mask
Museumgoers see the capital through Lincoln’s eyes in an exhibit about the Civil War’s effect on everyday life in D.C. Also in the National Portrait Gallery, find the two masks of Lincoln‘s face made in 1860 and 1865 as well as the eerie “cracked plate” photograph (above) taken by Alexander Gardner just before Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The image seemed to presage his death in that the glass broke above Lincoln’s forehead along the path of Booth’s fatal bullet.
Still the only U.S. president to hold a patent, Lincoln created a device to buoy vessels in shallow waters. Although it was never manufactured, the wooden prototype he whittled is on view at the National Museum of American History.
The Changing America exhibit commemorates the recent anniversaries of Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, inspired by the decree a hundred years later.
At Ford’s Theatre, visitors view the state box, with its original sofa and parlor chair, where Lincoln was sitting when shot by Confederate zealot John Wilkes Booth during an April 14, 1865, performance of Our American Cousin. Reports of the night’s events, woven with ironic, uncanny twists (like Booth’s having rented and slept in the same bed in the Petersen House where Lincoln was to die just weeks later), have fueled conspiracy theories implicating figures ranging from Vice President Andrew Johnson to the Roman Catholic Church. The theater’s lower-level museum displays the clothing Lincoln wore that fateful night, as well as a blood-stained pillow and Booth’s derringer pistol.
Across the street, the Petersen House, where the injured president was carried after being shot in the back of the head, recreates the scene of Lincoln’s death. The adjacent Center for Education and Leadership mounts exhibitions on the assassination’s aftermath and Lincoln’s legacy.
Throughout the assassination planning (originally a scheme to kidnap the president), plotters convened at 604 H Street NW, then the boarding house of Mary Surratt, the first woman to be executed by the federal government. Now Wok and Roll Asian restaurant and karaoke lounge occupy the site.
Another White House
The Lincolns retreated to the National Trust property, 3 miles north of the White House, to grieve son Willie as well as the nation’s sons being lost in wartime. But the home also became a respite from downtown’s swampy heat, which Lincoln still faced on his horseback commute. Today at President Lincoln’s Cottage, tours and exhibits recall the first family and the president’s ideals, namely those of the Emancipation Proclamation he penned here.
At Lincoln Restaurant, proprietor Alan Popovsky takes cues from the president not just for the name. The “contemporary log cabin” décor features a giant chair mimicking that at the Lincoln Memorial and a floor tiled with a million-plus pennies. And the fare? Small plates that include Lincoln favorites like oysters, gingerbread and chicken fricassee.
The Lincoln Memorial ranks as one the city’s most enduring and iconic tributes to the man and his legacy. Daniel Chester French’s statue of Lincoln at the temple gazes across the Reflecting Pool toward the U.S. Capitol. On either side of the 19-foot-tall Abe, inscriptions of his second inaugural address and the Gettysburg Address cover the walls. Take an interactive virtual walk through the memorial and hear reflections by those who have visited.
The Presidents Gallery at Madame Tussauds displays touchable wax likenesses of all 44 commander in chiefs and invites visitors to take a seat in the theater box next to “Lincoln.”
Gift shops and boutiques stock Lincoln souvenirs, from classic to kitschy. After touring the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, visitors find Civil War and Gettysburg Address anniversary currency sets as well as uncut sheets of $5 bills.
At the White House Historical Association gift shop, symbols of the 16th president grace gifts from cuff links to scarves, and at Salt & Sundry in Union Market, a sketch of Lincoln’s face adorns a flask.