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Preserving Lincoln's Legacy

President Lincoln's Cottage, Washington, DC

RMJM Hillier: George C. Skarmeas, Ph.D., AIA, NCARB, AICP, director of historic preservation [now principal / Planning & Design director of the Preservation Design Partnership, LLC]; Richard Ortega, PE, AIA, FAPT, project manager [now principal with Heritage Design Collaborative of Philadelphia]

J.S. Cornell & Son, Inc., Philadelphia; Rudy D'Alessandro, president

The Christman Company, Reston, VA: Ronald Staley, FAPT, project executive; David Brooks, project manager

By Kim A. O'Connell

Soon after you enter President Lincoln's Cottage in northwest Washington, DC, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary historic house tour. For one thing, the tour guide immediately throws open the large, original windows, letting in a warm breeze, and later invites the assembled group to sit on the furniture. There's not a velvet rope in sight.

Located on the grounds of the Soldiers' Home (now called the Armed Forces Retirement Home), President Lincoln's Cottage dates to 1842 and is a rare example of residential Gothic Revival architecture. The owner of the cottage is the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the client and site manager is now the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which opened the house to the public in 2008 after an extensive, seven-year, $17-million restoration (including exhibits). The cottage preserves the site where Lincoln and his family spent a quarter of his presidency. With the sesquicentennial of the Civil War now bringing renewed attention to Lincoln, the cottage serves as a model for historic preservation, sustainability and site interpretation.

"When we started this project, we developed three fundamental premises that would govern our work, and they were authenticity, evidence – meaning we would make decisions based on physical evidence and archival research and not conjecture – and integrity," says George C. Skarmeas, formerly the director of Historic Preservation with RMJM Hillier of Philadelphia, which led the design team for the Lincoln Cottage. (Since 2010, Skarmeas has been partner and Planning & Design director with Preservation Design Partnership of Philadelphia.)

Beginning in 1862, Lincoln would routinely make the three-mile journey from the White House to the cottage in the warm-weather months, enjoying the hilly site's views of the capital city and using it as a retreat to contemplate the ongoing war. In addition to meeting with soldiers, officers and Cabinet members, Lincoln is believed to have worked on drafts of the Emancipation Proclamation there as well.

Over the years, the Soldiers' Home had primarily used the building as offices and a dormitory, covering up historic fabric and dividing rooms with partitions, but rarely destroying the old material beneath. Still, by century's end, the cottage's Lincoln-era appearance – and its potential educational value to the public – had been obscured.

In 2000, the National Trust included the site on its annual list of the nation's most endangered places. The National Trust soon finalized a cooperative agreement with the Armed Forces Retirement Home to oversee a full restoration of the property, open it to the public and provide ongoing stewardship. William Dupont, the Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust, worked closely with former National Trust president Richard Moe, an avowed scholar of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, to provide direction for the project. Dupont was responsible for writing the Save America's Treasures grant application that provided start-up funds for the project, hiring Skarmeas as the project architect and subsequently leading a team of advisors to critique the philosophical approach.

"The primary goal was to really treat President Lincoln's Cottage as something unique," says Erin Carlson Mast, the site's director. "This was an amazing, authentic piece of history that was largely intact. We realized that we were at a very transitional point in preservation and sustainability and also historic house museums, so we wanted to take a new path."

The focus would be on Lincoln and the significance of the site, not on period pieces. As a result, the cottage is almost completely devoid of furniture, except for a few choice reproduction items. Flat-screen televisions and audio speakers are located throughout the house to enhance the guide-led tours, although they have a relatively low visual impact. "We peeled away the 20th-century layers, and we made sure that anything we added could be reversible," Mast says. "Where there is a TV screen, we chose to let it be what it was rather than hide it behind a period mirror or something like that. We wanted to emphasize what was authentic."

From an early stage, the National Trust was interested in including sustainability in the project. In the early 2000s, the LEED system was still in its infancy, but gaining traction. In addition to reopening the cottage, the National Trust agreed to sustainably rehabilitate an adjacent 1905 Beaux-Arts building to be used as a museum and visitor center – a project that would eventually earn the LEED Gold rating in 2009. The team took care to preserve the building's core and shell and disturbed as little of the interior as possible, moving a wall and adding a partition (which was easily reversible if need be). Carpeting, wood, countertops and flooring all contained recycled content, and low-flow fixtures were used in the bathrooms.

It was determined, however, that the LEED system should not guide the preservation of the cottage itself. Instead, the National Trust focused primarily on promoting energy efficiency through the cottage's original mechanisms, such as natural ventilation – hence the open windows on the tour. The restoration team also emphasized using durable materials such as slate, lead-coated copper and decay-resistant wood, which would limit the expense, energy and waste of frequent replacement.

"Historic buildings, in most cases, have a lot of features that promote sustainable building practices and use, from passive systems to use of materials with long life expectancies," Skarmeas says. "This fundamental premise became the foundation of our design approach in developing the treatment of the building and selection of materials."

One of the biggest challenges for the interior involved making the house accessible and able to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, according to Skarmeas. The house needed a lift or some means of vertical transportation that would avoid adverse impacts on the building's architecture and historic building fabric. Skarmeas and his team developed 3-D models and other visualizations to determine the impacts on the interior.

"We also needed to ensure that it would be accepted by the disabled community, and we advocated to the Trust, and the Trust agreed, to engage that community directly and get feedback on whether our solution met ADA requirements," Skarmeas says. "If you use this kind of outreach correctly, you get very good practical solutions and advice as to what needs to happen, so people can share the same experiences and be in the same environment." It was also critical, Skarmeas adds, that the lift (located on one side of the house) be clearly articulated as a modern intervention.

The most significant exterior changes involved the roof, the stucco and the veranda. The original 1842 section of the house had been covered in slate, with an 1848 addition roofed with metal panels. In the later 20th century, the roof had been replaced with typical asbestos shingles. The exterior stucco was failing in places because inappropriate exterior treatments over the years allowed moisture between the exterior layers and the brick structure, causing significant deterioration. And the veranda had been expanded over the years, obscuring the Lincoln-era appearance.

For the roof, the preservation team conducted research (such as examining nail holes) to determine the size and configuration of the metal panels, pole gutters and snow guards, as well as the color and size of the house's original slate shingles. "We replicated these details with great accuracy, making decisions to add subtle details for the longevity of the elements," explains David Overholt, former preservation projects director for the National Trust and now a project manager with Archa Technology, Ltd., in New York City.

"For instance," he says, "the pole gutters were covered in lead-coated copper to protect them, and the lead-coated copper was used on the metal section of the roof in lieu of painted terne metal for ease of maintenance and durability." The slate and metal roofing was supplied and installed by Wagner Roofing, of Hyattsville, MD.

The original veranda was replicated based on historic photos and site evidence. The wood, which was supplied by the Philadelphia-based general contractor J.S. Cornell and installed by Washington, DC-based Historic Structures, was chosen in part based on rot resistance in the humid Washington environment. The team chose Spanish cedar for the exterior trim and some posts and railings, African mahogany for the front doors and porch and balcony flooring, and white oak for the window sills and lintels. Because original sashes were made with eastern white pine, this was the wood used for any needed repairs, according to Jeffrey Larry, the current preservation manager for President Lincoln's Cottage.

The cast-iron steps were fabricated by Robinson Iron Works of Alexander City, AL, to resemble step designs found on nearby buildings. "Though the design of the steps is speculative," Overholt says, "they are similar to other steps in the immediate vicinity, which, according to research in the Soldiers' Home archives, is likely to be [historically accurate]. When the Home ordered something, it was often ordered in bulk or for many buildings at the same time."

For the stucco walls, the team worked with a nationally known plaster and masonry consultant, Andrew Ladygo of Manchester, MA, and a lime supplier, Virginia Lime Works in Madison Heights, VA, to accurately re-create the texture of the original stucco. A light lime wash was added as a final coat to protect the walls, Overholt says. The stucco work was done by D.L. Boyd, Inc., of Hyattsville and Baltimore, MD. Interior millwork and carpentry was done by Oak Grove Restoration Company of Laytonsville, MD, with mechanical work done by Welch & Rushe of Upper Marlboro, MD, and electrical installed by Mona Electric Group of Clinton, MD. Jeff Larry says that work is ongoing. Although an astonishing 23 layers of paint were removed in the library, where the original wood paneling now shows wonderful ghost lines of the old bookshelves, most of the paint in the house was left intact for future study, according to Larry. He adds that written evidence indicates that Mary Lincoln ordered wallpaper for eight rooms in the house, and he and his colleagues intend to do further investigation about this as well. The National Trust is also working on an architectural podcast that will discuss the restoration.

"There's still a lack of awareness about President Lincoln's Cottage," Mast says. "We're now looking at how we can make the cottage economically sustainable over the long-term. We're not content to rest on our laurels."

Skarmeas says that the project was very rewarding because the National Trust expected the best preservation practices and highest standards of conservation. Calling the team "truly outstanding," he offers high praise to William Dupont, the former Graham Gund Architect of the National Trust, for his vision for the restoration, Patricia O'Donnell, principal of Heritage Landscapes, Inc., of Charlotte, VT, and Norwalk, CT, for the historic landscape plan, and The Christman Co. for implementing the design in an accurate and exacting fashion.

"Looking back, I wouldn't change anything, not the sequence of events or the intensity," he says. "We all worked together very well and ended up doing an excellent job. Because of the significance of the site, everybody was very interested in doing the right thing."  TB


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