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History of Ford's Theatre

Watch as Ford's Theatre transforms throughout the years

Creation of Ford's Theatre, 1861-1865
What became Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site was originally home to the First Baptist Church of Washington. John T. Ford rented the building in 1861 and reconfigured the space into a theatre he initially called Ford’s Athenaeum. In 1862, Ford officially purchased the building, redesigning and expanding it. It opened in 1863 as the renamed Ford’s New Theatre. This sketch looks east towards the U.S. Capitol from near Foggy Bottom. The circle marks the theatre's location.

The First Baptist Church, the predecessor to Ford's Theatre, opened in 1834. John T. Ford rented the building in 1861 and turned it into a theatre. Here it appears as it stood before an 1862 fire.

1861: John T. Ford (1829-1894) failed in his first attempt at running a theatre in Washington, D.C., but he successfully managed theatres in other cities. At the beginning of the Civil War, he decided to try his luck again in the capital.

1862: John T. Ford opened Ford's Athenaeum. He remodeled the building and presented a mix of comedies, variety shows and Shakespearean plays to attract an elite clientele.

1863: After a destructive fire in 1862, Ford rebuilt his new theatre on the same site, but on an even grander scale. He mimicked the design of his Holliday Street Theatre in Baltimore.

1863: Ford’s Theatre hired well-known actors like John Wilkes Booth, whom Abraham Lincoln watched perform in The Marble Heart on November 9 of that year.

The Assassination, April 14-15, 1865 
On April 14, 1865, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate sympathizer, snuck into Ford’s Theatre and assassinated President Lincoln. He fled the crime scene and escaped out the back of the building, hiding out in Maryland and Virginia for 12 days before soldiers found and killed him. Lincoln’s death brought productions at Ford’s Theatre to a halt for the next 103 years. 

The comedy Our American Cousin starring the popular Laura Keene attracted Abraham Lincoln, an avid theatregoer, to attend the April 14, 1865, performance. At approximately 10:00 p.m., Booth shot the president.

Sketch of John Wilkes Booth as he jumped over the front railing of the President’s Box, injuring his leg. Before he fled, he is said to have shouted, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus, always, to tyrants!”) and/or “The South is avenged!”

After Booth fired his fatal shot, soldiers in the theatre audience carried President Lincoln to the Petersen House, across the street from Ford's Theatre. Lincoln died there the next morning, surrounded by family, officials and friends.

This engraving of President Lincoln's death misrepresents the size of the small room. Many people visited throughout the night, but they couldn’t have done so at one time. Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Within days, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered Mathew Brady to document the crime scene. Brady photographed the stage and Presidential Box, but souvenir hunters had already taken its flags and buntings.

July 1865: An anonymous letter sent to Ford warning him, "You must not think of opening tomorrow night. I can assure you it will not be tolerated." It was signed, "One of the many determined to prevent it." Ford ultimately heeded the warnings, and eventually sold the theatre to the War Department.

The Repurposing of Ford’s Theatre, 1866-1932
The War Department takes control of the theatre after Lincoln’s death, guts it and turns it into a three-story office building. The first two floors house the Office of Records and Pensions and the third, an Army Medical Museum. This memorandum of sale records the purchase of Ford's Theatre by the Government in 1866 for $88,000. 

1866: Although people did not want the theatre to remain operational out of respect for Lincoln's assassination, they also objected to memorializing it. The federal government purchased the theatre and turned it into a three-story office building.

1866-1887: The Army Medical Museum resided on the third floor of the former Ford's Theatre building. It offered visitors a look at the macabre, even temporarily housing a part of John Wilkes Booth's spine.

1893: A supporting pier in the basement of the Ford’s Theatre building collapsed, killing 22 employees. This shows a collapsed area as seen from the rear interior of the building.

1924: Congressman Henry Riggs Rathbone of Illinois, son of the Major Henry Rathbone who witnessed the assassination, unveiled a plaque labeling what still functioned as a warehouse as the location where Lincoln was shot. Public opposition derailed Rathbone’s proposal to restore the theatre.

Rise of the Lincoln Museum, 1932-1964
 In 1928, the government transferred control of Ford’s Theatre and the Petersen House (where Lincoln died) to the Office of Public Buildings and Public Parks. In 1893, a Lincoln enthusiast, Osborn Oldroyd, moved into the Petersen House and displayed his extensive array of Lincoln-related objects. After his death in 1930, Oldroyd’s collection moved from the Petersen House to the first floor of the Ford’s Theatre building. The building opened as a National Historic Site, part of the National Park Service, in 1932 but failed to attract enough visitors. Over time, interest in better understanding Lincoln’s last moments revived plans to restore both the Petersen House and Ford’s Theatre to their 1865 appearances.

1932: The new Lincoln Museum opened on the first floor of Ford’s Theatre, but it was too expensive and had too few interesting objects to appeal to a large public audience.

1964: The Lincoln Museum displayed a replica of Ford’s Theatre as it looked in 1865. But visitors wanted more, inspiring a campaign to restore the building to its previous appearance.

1940: The Lincoln Museum received many artifacts related to the assassination, including Booth's deringer pistol, seen here with Chief Clerk of the Judge Advocate General Edwin B. Pitts. Modern museum practices forbid handling artifacts in this manner.

Revival of Ford's Theatre, 1965-1988
In 1965, renovation begins to restore Ford’s Theatre to its 1865 appearance. The arrival of new objects reinvigorates interest in the Lincoln Museum, which moves to the basement of Ford’s Theatre. The creation of the non-profit Ford’s Theatre Society in 1968 launched the reintroduction of live productions at Ford’s Theatre for the first time since the night of Lincoln’s assassination .

1965-1967: In 1964, Congress approved funds to restore Ford's Theatre to its 1865-era appearance. Although the building's facade remained more or less intact, the interior needed extensive construction to undo all the changes that occurred since the night of the assassination.

1965: Upon hearing that the newly renovated theatre would not host live productions, Frankie Childers Hewitt (1931-2003) founded Ford’s Theatre Society, which still puts on plays today.

1968: While the building underwent construction, the museum was also renovated. This life-mask cast of Lincoln's face made in 1860 served as a centerpiece of the new museum in the Ford’s Theatre basement. The museum still underplayed the assassination.

1968: Ford's Theatre reopened as a national historic site and a working theatre. Thanks to the many photographs taken by Mathew Brady, the theatre looks remarkably similar to the way it did in 1865.

1970: Ford's Theatre Society hosted its first annual Ford's Theatre Gala, attended by First Lady Patricia Nixon, former first lady Mamie Eisenhower, and Ethel Kennedy, seated in the second row. These galas, honoring Lincoln's life, legacy, and love of the performing arts, still occur.

Modernization and Education, 1988-Today
Within the past three decades, Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site has seen further renovations. To accommodate people’s interest in learning more about the assassination, the National Park Service modernized the Ford’s Theatre museum in 1988, and the Ford’s Theatre Society and National Park Service updated the museum and theatre in 2007-09.  Then in 2010, Ford’s Theatre Society purchased a 10-story building next to the Petersen House to construct offices, learning studios, and additional museum space. 

Though the museum previously deemphasized the assassination, renovations began in 1988 to address the event more thoroughly.

2009: The most recent renovations occurred in 2007 and finished in 2009. The new museum chronicles the difficulties Lincoln faced, the legacy he left behind, and the details of his assassination.

By 2007, Ford’s Theatre needed updates to its by then 40-year-old reconstruction. New sound, lighting, stage-rigging and ventilation, as well as an overhaul of seating, created a historically accurate representation of the 1865 theatre. It reopened on February 11, 2009, the night before Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. Prominent figures such as President and Mrs. Obama, Katie Couric and James Earl Jones attended the ceremony.

2009: Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site acquired street-level space in an adjacent office building, allowing the Society to expand and include a larger lobby with updated amenities.

Ford's Theatre Society & Ford's Theatre National Historic Site
Credits: Exhibit

Exhibition Developer:
Anna Snyder, Digital Public History Intern

Exhibition Manager:
David McKenzie, Digital Projects Manager

Editors:
Sarah Jencks, Director of Educational Programming
Tracey Avant, Curator of Exhibitions

Credits: All media
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