The Camp David of the 1800s


Most Americans have heard of Camp David, the president's summer retreat.

But ask about Anderson Cottage, and you're likely to get blank looks in return.

That's about to change, however, now that this summer home of President Abraham Lincoln has been designated a national monument.

The 14-room Gothic revival cottage lies just three miles north of the White House, and has been part of a complex of homes for America's veterans for over 150 years. It may be off the beaten path for today's tourists, but in the summers of 1862-64 - when the country was torn by civil war - Mr. Lincoln commuted to this hilltop retreat by horseback and carriage to beat the heat in the swampy lowland of the city.

Probably its greatest claim to fame is that it was here, in the "other" Lincoln bedroom, that the president wrote his history-altering final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves.

"In some ways, this cottage ... is the most important, as well as the least known, Lincoln site in the entire United States," said President Clinton, when he designated the site on Friday.

Lincoln spent nearly a quarter of his presidency here, a fact which did not at all please his security-conscious secretary of war. In fact, it was on one of Lincoln's rides from the cottage that he narrowly escaped death.

Impatient for a cavalry escort that had not yet arrived, the president set out from the house alone one August evening in 1864. Suddenly, he heard a gunshot, and immediately rode back. He was unhurt, but his guards found his stovepipe hat with a bullet hole in it, lying along the road.

At times, the stucco and white-trimmed house was hardly the sanctuary it was meant to be. Just a month before the gunshot incident, Confederate General Jubal Early got so close to the cottage that Lincoln had to return in haste to the White House.

The war, it seemed, was never far from his mind or his locale. At one point, he visited a battle being waged just two miles to the north.

A needed respite

But much of the time the home did indeed provide respite for the burdened president and his family. He would read poetry under the canopy of a copper birch tree - which still stands today and is 300 years old. He would play with his son, Tad, and scold him for once again letting the nanny goat wander into the flower beds.

His wife, Mary Todd, who spent more time at the cottage than her husband, "absolutely adored this place," says Nick Minecci, spokesman for the US Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, where the cottage is located. Mrs. Lincoln loved the tranquility of the home, and especially the fact that her husband couldn't be easily interrupted when he was there evenings and mornings.

And for the whole family, it was indeed a cooler place to live, with breezes and altitude pushing temperatures down 6 to 7 degrees - 5 degrees further if you were under the grand beech.

It's not hard to visualize this when you look at the cottage from the outside. Its broad veranda, scalloped whitewashed trim, and gabled roof have been fairly well maintained.

But step inside, and there's little other than old photos to remind you of Lincoln, or any of the five other presidents who used Anderson Cottage as a retreat.

The flooring is either linoleum or pea-green industrial carpeting. The walls are a nondescript off-white - cracked and flaking in many places. And the rooms, used by the public relations office of the Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, contain desks, a photo copy machine, and computers.

Because the Lincoln family brought their furniture with them every summer, there are no original furnishings in the house.

Lincoln studies site

With the $750,000 matching grant the president made available last week, the home is that much further along toward restoration, a project which will take $3 to $4 million to complete, estimates Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Mr. Moe says that, when it's restored, the cottage will only have a few rooms furnished, with the rest of the space devoted to exhibits.

His hope is that the home will become a center for the study of the Lincoln presidency, much as Monticello has become for the Jefferson presidency. But because of its location on the veterans' complex, it will only be able to take a limited number of visitors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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