Kennedy had Hyannisport. Bush 41 summered in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush 43 favored his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Nixon loved his La Casa Pacifica Mansion in San Clemente, California. The Clintons had Martha’s Vineyard until Dick Morris, their pollster, told them it was too posh. A variety of presidents used Camp David to unwind. The Obama’s favor Hawaii. But what about Abe Lincoln? What did the man that most historians consider America’s greatest president do for vacation?
Perched on a hill in a gritty, working class neighborhood of Washington D.C., around the corner from stores with heavily fortified protective grills and an Eritrean Orthodox Church, sits one of the city’s most compelling, yet off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations. The Hamptons it is not. It’s the Soldiers’ Home, which served as the Lincoln family’s seasonal “cottage” retreat from 1862-4.
The Lincoln family moved into the Victorian style cottage 150 years ago shortly after the death of their eleven-year-old son Willie, who probably drank contaminated water from the Potomac and caught typhoid fever, one of the great scourges of the era. Like any grieving family, the Lincolns needed a change of scenery — someplace quiet, away from the bustle, foul air and contagious diseases that plagued crowded D.C.
The family moved into the Soldiers’ Home, a house that was built in 1842 for the Washington banking tycoon who founded Riggs Bank. The house is on the grounds of America’s first home for retired and disabled, enlisted veterans. When Lincoln moved in there were a few hundred veterans living on the grounds and there were also Union soldiers camping out in tents on the premises. Veterans still live on the grounds today.
Every morning from April or May through November, Lincoln would make the three-mile, 30-minute commute down the hill into D.C. on horseback. His advisors wanted him to make the trip with a cavalry security entourage, but Abe preferred to leave before they arrived, so he could go alone, stopping on the way to chat with soldiers and freed slaves who gave him a real picture of what life was like for ordinary people during the war. Last year, museum staff tried to reenact his horse ride and it took two hours due to traffic and lights.
Other presidents aside from Lincoln also spent time at the home, including Presidents Hayes, Buchanan and Arthur, but none were as attached to the place as the Lincolns reportedly were. After it fell out of fashion as a presidential retreat, it went back to being used as a veterans’ office, and part of it was turned into what was called Lincoln’s Lounge & Pub. (Never mind the fact that Abe was a teetotaler.)
According to my GPS, the home sits at an elevation of just 460 feet, but that’s a few hundred feet higher than the White House, so they believed that the place was a bit breezier and healthier as well. Today, the notion of traveling three miles away to “Get away from it all,” seems absurd — but it wasn’t at the time. There was no morning Tai Chi or organic food, but it was a kind of holistic retreat for the family before that term was invented.
Lincoln was seen riding his favorite horse, Big Bob, around the grounds of the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before he was assassinated. 135 years later, President Clinton declared the site a National Monument, and after an eight-year restoration project it was opened to the public on President’s Day in 2008.
It’s the only tourist attraction in D.C. that offers free parking, and the $12 entry fee buys visitors an informative guided tour as well as entry into the small but well organized museum in the visitor’s center (reservations recommended). The lifelike statue of Lincoln out front is exactly six feet four-and-a-half inches tall, so step right up to it to get an idea of what it might have been like to stand toe-to-toe with Honest Abe. (The hat brings him up to seven feet tall.) If you’re interested in knowing more about Lincoln’s life, this is a must stop in a somewhat obscure area of D.C.
These days the neighborhood isn’t the quiet, country retreat it once was — on my visit, the din of construction cranes could be heard in the distance. But there’s still a view of the Capitol, which was under construction when Lincoln lived there.
The Hampton’s designer-dog-in-a-purse crowd is nowhere to be found and no one would confuse the neighborhood with Hyannisport or Martha’s Vineyard, but walking around the grounds of the place, it’s not hard to conjure a vision of big Abe in his stovepipe hat riding up the hill on horseback after a long day at the White House.