Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC (2)

The exterior of Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street NW in Washington, DC, around 1909-1919. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, National Photo Company Collection.

The scene in 2021:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Ford’s Theatre is famous for having been the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. The theater had opened in 1863, but after the assassination it was acquired by the federal government and converted into offices. This involved the entire reconstruction of the interior, and much of the interior was rebuilt again in 1893, following a tragic collapse of the interior floors.

The building continued to serve as government offices and storage until the early 1900s, and in 1932 it became the site of a museum in memory of Abraham Lincoln. Then, in 1933 it was acquired by the National Park Service, and in the 1960s the interior was again reconstructed, this time to convert it back into a theater.

The first photo was taken around 1909-1919, showing the exterior during its time as an office building for the War Department’s Division of Records and Pensions. Today, the exterior remains preserved in its original appearance, and the restored theater interior continues to be used for performances. It is open to the public for tours, as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

The exterior of Ford’s Theatre on 10th Street NW in Washington, DC, in April 1865. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show Ford’s Theatre, which was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on the night of April 14, 1865. The origins of the theater date back to 1834, when the First Baptist Church was built here on this site, on the east side of 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets. The church congregation remained here until 1859, when it merged with another Baptist church, and in 1861 the building here was sold to John T. Ford. He converted it into a theater, and it opened in 1862 as Ford’s Athenaeum.

However, the original building was destroyed by a fire in December 1862. Ford subsequently rebuilt here on the same site, and the new Ford’s Theatre opened on August 27, 1863, with a performance of The Naiad Queen. The country was in the midst of the Civil War at the time, but for many Washingtonians the theater provided a welcome diversion from the conflict. Among them was Abraham Lincoln, who regularly attended plays here, including a November 9, 1863 performance of The Marble Heart, starring his future assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln visited the new theater on at least eight other occasions. On the night of his assassination, he was watching Our American Cousin, accompanied by his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, Major Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancée Clara Harris. They were seated in the presidential box to the right of the stage when, around 10:15 p.m., John Wilkes Booth entered the box and shot Lincoln in the head with a pistol. After a brief struggle with Rathbone, Booth jumped down to the stage and made his escape out a side door.

There were several doctors in attendance at the theater. They rendered what aid they could, but determined that his wound was fatal. Rather than attempting to bring him all the way back to the White House, they instead brought him across the street to the Petersen House, where he died at 7:22 the following morning. The first photo in this post was taken only a few days after the assassination, showing the exterior of the theater and several surrounding buildings.  Immediately to the right of the theater was the Star Saloon, a three-story brick building where John Wilkes Booth had a drink of whiskey and water immediately before entering the theater to kill Lincoln.

Following the assassination, the government determined that it would be inappropriate to continue using the building as a theater. As a result, they leased—and then later purchased—it from Ford, and converted it into office space. In the process, the interior was completely gutted, and three new stories were built in the space that had once housed the theater. These floors were occupied by the War Department’s Division of Pensions and Records, and also by the Army Medical Museum.

The building would end up being the site of another tragedy on June 9, 1893. It was in the midst of being modernized with the installation of an electric plant, which involved excavation work in the basement. In the process, one of the supporting piers collapsed, causing a portion of the upper floors to likewise collapse. The building was occupied at the time, and 22 workers were killed in the collapse, with many others seriously injured.

The disaster did not affect the exterior walls, and the interior was subsequently repaired. It continued to be used by the Division of Records and Pensions for many years, but in 1932 it became the site of a museum in memory of Lincoln, and a year later the building was acquired by the National Park Service. Then, in the 1960s the interior was reconstructed into a theater, based on its original design.

Today, Ford’s Theatre is still standing, and it is still used as a performing arts venue while also serving as an important Washington landmark. However, because of the many renovations over the years, there is very little left of the original structure aside from the brick exterior walls. As for the adjacent Star Saloon, the present-day building is entirely a reconstruction. The original building was demolished in 1930 to create a parking lot, but it was rebuilt in the 1960s as part of the reconstruction of the theater. Both of these buildings, along with the Petersen House across the street, are still operated by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site.

Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC

The presidential box at Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was shot on the night of April 14, 1865. This photo was taken several days later. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. Civil War Glass Negatives and Related Prints collection.

The scene in 2021:

These two photos show the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., which is famous for having been the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Lincoln regularly attended performances here at Ford’s Theatre during his presidency, and on this particular night he was sitting in this box, watching the play Our American Cousin. He was accompanied by his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, along with Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris.

Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a famous actor and a southern sympathizer. With the Civil War essentially over following the surrender of Lee’s army on April 9, Booth and his fellow conspirators evidently believed that killing Lincoln and other high-profile government officials was the last chance to prevent the defeat of the south.

To that end, Booth entered Ford’s Theatre at around 10:10 p.m. His presence in the theater raised little suspicion, since he was such a prominent actor, and he made his way to the presidential box. Not only was he familiar with the layout of the theater, but he also knew the play itself, and timed his shot so that it happened right after one of the funniest lines in the comedy, when he knew the sound of laughter would cover up the sound of the gunshot.

Booth entered the presidential box, produced a single-shot Deringer pistol, and shot Lincoln in the head at 10:15 p.m. He then had a brief struggle with Major Rathbone, whom he stabbed with a knife, and Booth then jumped down onto the stage, 12 feet below the box. In the process, he caught his riding spur in one of the flags that was draped on the front of the box, which caused him to land awkwardly. He then stood up, shouted “sic semper tyrannis,” and made his escape via a door on the side of the building.

In the meantime, 23-year-old Army surgeon Charles Leale was the first to arrive at the presidential box to render assistance. After evaluating Lincoln’s condition, he discovered the wound in the back of his head, and used his finger to remove a blood clot, which helped to improve his breathing. However, it was soon obvious that his wound was fatal, and that Lincoln would likely not survive a carriage ride back to the White House. Writing soon after the assassination, Dr. Leale described what occurred here in the presidential box in the immediate aftermath of the shooting;

I immediately ran to the Presidents box and as soon as the door was opened was admitted and introduced to Mrs. Lincoln when she exclaimed several times, “O Doctor, do what you can for him, do what you can”! I told her we would do all that we possibly could.

When I entered the box the ladies were very much excited. Mr. Lincoln was seated in a high backed arm-chair with his head leaning towards his right side supported by Mrs. Lincoln who was weeping bitterly. Miss Harris was near her left and behind the President.

While approaching the President I sent a gentleman for brandy and another for water.

When I reached the President he was in a state of general paralysis, his eyes were closed and he was in a profoundly comatose condition, while his breathing was intermittent and exceedingly stertorous. I placed my finger on his right radial pulse but could perceive no movement of the artery. As two gentlemen now arrived, I requested them to assist me to place him in a recumbent position, and as I held his head and shoulders, while doing this my hand came in contact with a clot of blood near his left shoulder.

Supposing that he had been stabbed there I asked a gentleman to cut his coat and shirt off from that part, to enable me if possible to check the hemorrhage which I supposed took place from the subclavian artery or some of its branches.

Before they had proceeded as far as the elbow I commenced to examine his head (as no wound near the shoulder was found) and soon passed my fingers over a large firm clot of blood situated about one inch below the superior curved line of the occipital bone.

The coagula I easily removed and passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball, and found that it had entered the encephalon.

As soon as I removed my finger a slight oozing of blood followed and his breathing became more regular and less stertorous. The brandy and water now arrived and a small quantity was placed in his mouth, which passed into his stomach where it was retained.

Dr. C. F. Taft and Dr. A. F. A. King now arrived and after a moments consultation we agreed to have him removed to the nearest house, which we immediately did, the above named with others assisting.

The nearest house proved to be the Petersen House, which was located directly across the street from the theater. The men carried him there, and laid him on a bed on the first floor. Over the course of the night, other physicians arrived to evaluate him, but there was little that they could do beyond removing blood clots. He died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, without ever having regained consciousness following the shooting.

Lincoln’s death turned the Union’s victory at the end of the Civil War into a period of national mourning. Soldiers eventually tracked down Booth, who was killed in a shootout 12 days after the assassination, and the other conspirators were arrested, tried, convicted, and hanged on July 7.

Here at Ford’s Theatre, owner John T. Ford planned to reopen the theater on July 10, with a performance of Octoroon. Proceeds from the ticket sales would have gone toward a national monument fund for Lincoln, but many thought that it would be in poor taste to continue using the building as a theater. So, the War Department took control of the building prior to the performance, and the government began leasing it for $1,500 per month, before purchasing it outright from Ford in 1866.

The first photo was taken sometime in April 1865, only days after the assassination. It shows the presidential box as it had appeared on that night, including the five flags and the framed lithograph of George Washington that had decorated the box. Several of the chairs and the sofa are also visible inside the box. At the time of the assassination, Clara Harris had been sitting in one of the chairs on the left side, with Major Rathbone in the sofa. Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln had been sitting further to the right, and the chair on the right side of the box appears to have been the president’s rocking chair.

This photograph, along with a similar one taken at the same time, proved to be a valuable resource for historians. Soon after leasing the building, the government began the process of converting the interior of the theater into office space. This involved essentially gutting the building, and the presidential box was dismantled sometime in August 1865, about four months after the assassination. The project was completed in November, by which point the former theater had been transformed into a three-story government office building.

Over the next few decades, the building would house the Army Medical Museum, along with the War Department’s Division of Records and Pensions. However, as it turned out, the Lincoln assassination would not be the deadliest tragedy to occur in this building. By the 1890s, the building was showing signs of serious structural problems. These were exacerbated by excavation work in the basement, which weakened a load-bearing brick pier. This pier collapsed on June 9, 1893, causing a large section of the interior structure to collapse as well. Many government workers were trapped in the debris, and a total of 22 were killed in the disaster.

The interior of the building was subsequently repaired, and it continued to be used by the Division of Records and Pensions into the 20th century. By this point, though, there were increased calls to preserve the building as a museum and memorial in honor of Lincoln, rather than just using it for storing government records. Among those who advocated for such a plan was Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone, the son of Major Rathbone and Clara Harris. He died in 1928, before any action had been taken, but in 1932 a Lincoln museum opened on the first floor of the former theater, featuring the extensive collection of Osborn H. Oldroyd, which had previously been housed across the street at the Petersen House. Then, a year later, the building came under the control of the National Park Service.

The building’s interior remained in its altered form until the mid-1960s, when it underwent a massive restoration. As was the case a century earlier, the interior of the building was gutted, leaving little more than the exterior walls still standing. The theater was then reconstructed inside the building, including the presidential box, which was furnished and decorated as it would have appeared on the night of Lincoln’s assassination. It reopened on January 30, 1968, with a nationally-televised event that included dignitaries such as Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

Today, Ford’s Theatre continues to be used as a performing arts venue, and it is also open to the public for tours. With the exception of modern wiring, this view of the presidential box looks essentially the same as it did in the first photo, although in reality there is probably nothing in the present-day scene that predates the 1960s restoration. However, some of the artifacts from the first photo do still exist. Three of the five flags are accounted for, with one in the museum here at Ford’s Theatre, one at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford, and one at the Pike County Historical Society in Milford, Pennsylvania. The door to the presidential box, the sofa, and the lithograph of Washington are also in the Ford’s Theatre collections, although the latter two are not on public display.

As for Lincoln’s rocking chair, it was taken by the government as evidence after the assassination, and it remained in storage for many years. But, in 1929 it was returned to the Blanche Ford, widow of the chair’s original owner, theater treasurer Henry C. Ford. She then sold it at auction, and the buyer in turn sold it to a different Henry Ford, of automobile fame, who was not related to the original owner. The chair is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where it is one of the highlights of the museum’s collections.

Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Chestnut Street Theatre on the north side of Chestnut Street, just west of Sixth Street in Philadelphia, on April 30, 1855. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, James McClees Philadelphia Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

During the colonial era, theater was not a significant part of American culture, particularly in the northern and middle colonies. In New England, the Puritans saw plays and acting as immoral, and here in Philadelphia the Quakers similarly disapproved, believing that going to theaters was a frivolous use of time and money. Some colonies, including Pennsylvania, even outlawed plays. However, this trend began to change after the American Revolution, and one of the first purpose-built theaters in the country was the Chestnut Street Theatre, which opened here in 1794. 

At the time, Philadelphia was the capital city of both the United States and Pennsylvania, and the theater was located in the midst of these governmental buildings. The national capitol, Congress Hall, was diagonally across the street from the theater, and just beyond Congress Hall was Independence Hall, the seat of the state government. The Supreme Court met in a building on the other side of Independence Hall, and a block to the north of the theater was the President’s House, home of George Washington and later John Adams.

The original Chestnut Street Theatre burned in 1820, but it was rebuilt two years later. This new building, which is shown here in the first photo, was designed by prominent Philadelphia architect William Strickland, who was responsible for many important buildings in the city during the early 19th century. On the exterior, the theater featured classically-inspired elements such as the arched entryways on the ground level and the four columns on the upper floor. The columns were flanked by a pair of statues, representing Tragedy and Comedy, that were carved by sculptor William Rush. The interior of the theater featured three rows of boxes arranged in a semi-circle around the stage, and it could accommodate around 2,000 people. It was built with fire safety in mind, including large stairways and multiple exits with outward-swinging doors, and it was said that a full crowd could evacuate the building in under three minutes.

The theater opened on December 2, 1822, and the occasion was marked by the reading of a letter from poet Charles Sprague, followed by a performance of the comedy The School for Scandal. Several days later, the National Gazette reported on it, observing that it opened “to a crowded, brilliant and good humoured house. The spectators and the actors appeared to be in the best spirits and both performed their respective parts in the best manner.” The article went on to say that “Everything went on and off swimmingly and satisfactorily” and that “Several gentlemen who had been abroad, and some foreigners, were heard to say that the Theatre was the prettiest they had ever seen.”

The new Chestnut Street Theatre, which came to be known as “Old Drury,” remained a popular venue for plays and concerts throughout the first half of the 19th century. During this time, perhaps the most famous performer was Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer who toured America from 1850 to 1852. The tour was organized by P. T. Barnum, who used his showman skills to generate fanfare for her performances. She arrived in New York in September 1850, and a month later she came to Philadelphia, where her first performance in the city occurred here at the Chestnut Street Theatre on October 17. In order to meet the anticipated demand, the tickets were auctioned off. The first one sold for the astronomical price of $625, equivalent to around $20,000 today, but prices quickly dropped for the subsequent tickets. The second one sold for just $15, and before long they were selling for under $10. In the end, about 1,700 tickets were sold at the auction, at an average of $7 each.

The day after the concert, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an account of the event, including a description of the crowd inside the theater:

A more brilliant audience never assembled within its walls, and this is saying a great deal, for “Old Drury” ranked for many years as the very temple of taste, fashion, dramatic and musical triumph. The spectacle was, indeed, fairy-like. The splendid dresses, the bright eyes, the flushed cheeks, the eager expectation depicted on every countenance, the brilliant gas-lights, and the whisperings and buzzings of many voices, served to produce an unwonted excitement; and thus, long before the hour for the commencement of the entertainment, the blood seemed to flow more rapidly through the veins, even of the most passionless.

The excitement of this event notwithstanding, by the 1850s the Chestnut Street Theatre was past its prime. Its location was no longer as desirable as it had once been, and the building was considered too small by this point. The first photo was taken on April 30, 1855, a day before its final performance, as indicated by the playbills at the main entrance, which indicate that it will be the “last night but one” for the old theater. That evening’s entertainment consisted of the burletta The Loan of a Lover, followed by the comedy Faint Heart Never Won Fair Lady and the drama Sixteen String Jack. The leading performer was 21-year-old Philadelphia native Julia Daly, whose name appears prominently on the playbills. According to newspaper advertisements, admission started at 12.5 cents for the gallery. General admission was 25 cents, and reserved seats for 37.5 cents. Orchestra and private box seating was 50 cents, and the “Colored Gallery” was 25 cents.

Somewhat more ominously than the playbills, the first photo also includes several visible posters advertising for the public sale that would take place on May 2, the day after the final performance. The sale would include the theater’s scenery, wardrobe, machinery, and other items, along with building materials such as doors, windows, rafters, roofing, and even the marble facade. This included the four marble columns, which sold for $25 each.

The theater was demolished soon after the sale, and it was replaced by a commercial building. All of the other buildings in the first photo have since been demolished as well, and the site of the theater is now a bank, which was built in 1965. It was originally the First Pennsylvania Bank, but after a series of mergers it is now a Wells Fargo branch. Further in the distance, on the other side of Sixth Street, is part of the Independence National Historical Park, and just out of view on the far right is Congress Hall and Independence Hall.

Town Hall, Brattleboro, Vermont (2)

The town hall on Main Street in Brattleboro, seen from the corner of High Street in May 1937. Image taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

As mentioned in the previous post, the old Brattleboro town hall was built in 1855, and over the years it was used for town offices and town meetings, but it also housed the library, police department, post office, and county clerk’s office, along with several different commercial tenants. The meeting hall was also used for concerts and other performances, and in 1895 the building was expanded with the addition of an auditorium that was originally known as the opera house. The building hosted a number of notable speakers throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Henry Ward Beecher, Frederick Douglass, Horace Greeley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mark Twain.

During the early 20th century, movies began to eclipse live performances in popularity, and by the 1920s the opera house in the town hall was converted into a movie theater, known as the Auditorium. The first photo, taken in 1937, shows the front entrance of the building, the the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery and Rosalind Russell. At the time, the Auditorium was the only movie theater in town, following the a March 15, 1937 fire that destroyed the Princess Theatre on Elliot Street. However, it would soon face new competition from new, modern theaters. Later in 1937, the building next door on the right side of the photo was converted into the Paramount Theatre, and a year later the Latchis Theatre opened a little south of here on Main Street.

This new competition hurt the older Auditorium, which entered a steady decline in the following years. The building continued to be used as the town hall during this time, but in 1951 the town offices were moved to the old high school building, located just north of here on Main Street. The old town hall was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, parts of the exterior brick walls of the town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new one-story building. Part of the old wall can be seen on the right side of the building in the present-day photo, with light-colored bricks that contrast with the darker bricks of the front part of the building.

Main Street from High Street, Brattleboro, Vermont

Looking north on Main Street from the corner of High Street in Brattleboro, in May 1937. Photo taken by Arthur Rothstein, courtesy of the Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection.

The scene in 2017:

The first photo was taken in May 1937 by Arthur Rothstein, a prominent photojournalist who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s. Like the other photographers of this New Deal-era agency, Rothstein traveled around the country, documenting rural life during the Great Depression. In 1936 he visited Oklahoma, where he took one of the most iconic images of the Dust Bowl, and the following year he was in Vermont, where his images included this scene on Main Street in the downtown Brattleboro. The photo shows rows of cars parked along the street, with a mix of houses, businesses, and public buildings on the east side of the street.

Probably the oldest building in this scene is the Centre Congregational Church, with its prominent steeple in the middle of both photos. The church was originally built in 1816, and was located a little north of here on the town common. However, in 1842 the building was dismantled and reconstructed here on this site, with a design similar to the old building. The new church was dedicated in 1843, and included a steeple and a columned portico at the front of the building. This steeple was destroyed in high winds in 1864, though, and it was rebuilt with a new Italianate-style design that omitted the columns at the front entrance. In 1929, the steeple was damaged in a fire, but was repaired and has not seen any other significant changes since the first photo was taken.

The other notable building in the first photo is the town hall, which is on the right side of the scene. Built in 1855, this building saw a variety of uses, including as town offices, post office, library, and the police department, and it also housed commercial tenants over the years. In 1895, the building was renovated, and an 875-seat opera house was added to it. By the time the first photo was taken, the opera house had the less-glamorous name of Auditorium, and was used primarily as a movie theater, with the marquee advertising Night Must Fall, starring Robert Montgomery. However, the auditorium fell into decline as newer theaters opened on Main Street in the late 1930s, and in 1951 the town offices moved just up Main Street to the old high school, leaving this building vacant. It was mostly demolished two years later, and a W. T. Grant department store was built on the site. However, portions of the exterior walls of the old town hall were left standing, and were incorporated into the new building.

More than 80 years after the first photo was taken, this scene has not significantly changed aside from the loss of the old town hall. The W. T. Grant building that replaced it is still there, although the old department store has long since given way to new retail tenants. The church is also still there, as is the three-story granite building on the far right, which was built around 1850 and was later converted into the Paramount Theatre soon after the first photo was taken. Today, these 19th century buildings are now part of the Brattleboro Downtown Historic District, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.