Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership

Newly opened on this past President’s Day, the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership documents the immediate aftermath of the Lincoln assassination and explores the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in art, culture, and most of all history.

Tickets can be purchased in advance through Ticketmaster or at the Ford’s Theatre box office but we took our chances and got lucky by getting same day tickets at the box office. We only had to wait 10 minutes before we got admitted to the Petersen House, directly across from the Theatre. We heard, however, that during the summer months, you should just order ahead.

You can only enter the Center for Education and Leadership through the Petersen House. The Petersen House is the brick boarding house that Lincoln was carried to immediately after he was shot. You go through two parlors until you see the bedroom and actual bed where he died. The rooms are furnished with authentic furniture from the period but none of it is original to the house. Note: Photography is permitted here and in the Center.

After leaving the Petersen House, you take an elevator to the 4th floor to enter the connected Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership. There, you will find yourself transported to April 15, 1865, the day Lincoln died. Church bells toll and you hear the announcement that Lincoln is dead. The brick floor shows carriage tracks and hoof prints. The 4th floor explores the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Exhibition labels tell about the reaction of his immediate family. Word quickly went abroad and you can see a copy of the condolence letter sent from Queen Victoria to Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln. The dramatic impact of Lincoln’s death is brought home from the juxtaposition of seeing the bed where he died to the time travel effect. Even my rambunctious almost eight year-old daughter was subdued and moved by the experience.

Step into a re-creation of the train car that took Lincoln’s body on a fourteen day tour around the country. You will see how the flag was draped over the coffin plus original artifacts from the coffin and its platform (catafalque). A computer program allows you to track the train’s progress from Springfield to Washington DC and see the tremendous turnout and notable incidents in each city.

Outside of the train car, you will find signage about the Johnson presidency, the 12-day search for John Wilkes Booth, and the role of the conspirators. An interactive program allows you to see what Booth had on his person at the time of the escape. Original artifacts include Booth’s saddle and map, the steering wheel of the USS Montauk (the ship that served as a floating jail to most of the conspirators), and the keys to Mary Surratt’s jail cell. Note: Many more original artifacts like Booth’s Derringer are at Ford’s Theatre Museum. A light-up map shows Booth’s journey from Ford’s Theatre to Garrett’s farm. Visitors can peer through wood panels to see a re-creation of the shooting of Booth in the burning Tobacco Barn on the farm. Kids stood around transfixed by the tableau. The gun shot sounds merely startled the children there but they may potentially bother your child.

Descend to the next floor, and you will learn about Lincoln’s legacy from pop culture to global policies. First, you will learn about the Restoration period. The Lincoln Memorial: America’s Stage, a video by the History Channel, documents historic events at the Lincoln Memorial from Marian Anderson’s performance in 1939, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the vigil of the Iraqi hostages, to Obama’s recent speech. This video can be comfortably viewed in a theater with benches. There are also brief histories of Lincoln sculptures, plays and films, as well as a display of Lincoln memorabilia from Lincoln Logs to stuffed Lincoln dolls. Lincoln’s impact on such presidents as Obama, both Roosevelts, Wilson, Nixon, and Eisenhower is also described.

The second floor focuses on Lincoln’s leadership qualities of courage, integrity, empathy and tolerance, ideals of equality, and creativity and innovation. Visitors are invited to donate money to their favorite leadership quality. Six historical figures including Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi, who embody the leadership qualities, are profiled. Yellow sticky notes are provided for those who want to make comments.

A 34-foot Lincoln book tower made of fireproof aluminum but looking convincingly real goes through all the floors and can be viewed from the circular staircase and on the main floor. My girls (11 and almost 8) made a game of finding duplicate book titles. Note: There is an elevator but take the stairs if possible for the full effect. Fun fact: The Center for Education and Leadership’s tower of books sculpture includes approximately 6,800 books.

The ground floor has a gift shop with Lincoln souvenirs including T-shirts, children’s games, books, Lincoln Logs, and sodas and water. There is also a souvenir penny machine.

The visit took almost an hour and a half. We wanted to visit Fords Theatre, which was included in the admission ticket. However, an afternoon matinee prevented it. Try to avoid our mistake. Allow at least two hours to see everything.

The new Center for Leadership and Education is very well done. The fourth floor was fascinating. The third floor a little less so. The second floor was the weakest and did not really illustrate how Lincoln exemplified the leadership qualities. Although the path from the Petersen House to the fourth floor maximized the dramatic impact, it also creates a bottleneck since only 15 people can be admitted to the Petersen House at one time. I would recommend this Center for children eight and up or those with some familiarity with Abraham Lincoln. The Center explores Lincoln’s enormous legacy in a monumental and moving way.

Important Information

  • Advance individual tickets are $2.50 and can be purchased at the Ford’s Theatre Box Office or through Ticketmaster (plus $1.10 service charge). Tickets for groups of 20 or more are $2.00. A limited number of free tickets are available at the Ford’s Theatre Box Office beginning at 8:30 a.m. for same-day tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. Individuals are limited to six tickets per person for same-day tickets.
  • Admission includes Ford’s Theatre, Petersen House, and the Center for Education and Leadership.
  • Ford’s Theatre is a working professional theatre, and there will be occasions when visitors will not be able to enter the theatre or museum due to rehearsals, set load-ins and matinee performances. Please consult the website for current information.
  • There are two restrooms with changing tables on floors 1, 2, and 3. Two water fountains are outside the restrooms.
  • Parking is available downtown by way of two-hour metered parking. Note: Beware. Policemen were busy ticketing while we were there and we just missed getting a ticket. There are a few parking garages nearby that run $10 and up. Nearest metro stations: Metro Center, Gallery Place, and Archives/Navy Memorial.

Photo 1: The 34-foot tower of Lincoln books within the lobby of the new Center for Education and Leadership. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

Photo 2: A model of John Wilkes Booth sits within the burning tobacco barn section of the exhibits at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership. Photo by Maxwell MacKenzie.

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