Sprucing up Abe Lincoln's home
The home where the nation’s 16th president and his family lived for 17 years is getting the dents, scratches, scrapes and spills of more than 350,000 visitors a year fixed up, including a fresh coat of exterior paint, plaster repairs, repainting interior trim and replacing wallpaper and drapes that, in some cases, are 20 years old.
It’s all part of a larger project to spruce up the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in time for the 2009 bicentennial celebration of Lincoln’s birth, an event that is expected to bring a surge of visitors through a house that already draws tourists from around the world.
“When we’re real busy, we can have as many as five tours in the building at one time,” said site superintendent James Sanders.
The home remains open during the work, though some exhibits might be moved from time to time.
The National Park Service, which manages the site, limits groups to 15 people per tour, though the figure can go higher at the peak of tourism season. And, as with any historic home, the don’t-touch rule can be hard to enforce.
“People rub up against the wall. There’s also salt and oil on the tip of your fingers, and that leaves a stain,” said Sanders.
Even the most vigilant of visitors rub against paint and wallpaper while on the tour — one often-bumped wall in a first-floor exhibit is referred to as the “butt wall” — though the woman responsible for assuring the historical accuracy of the work said the biggest challenge is simply the wear and tear of time.
“The house is tougher than you think. It’s a nearly 170-year-old house, and millions of people have been through it the last 20 years. It’s held up pretty well,” said Susan Haake, curator for the Lincoln Home National Historic Site.
Some visitors can’t seem to resist touching, including the simulated cake on a dining room table to see if its real, though railing and motion sensors are used to keep the public back from 50 original Lincoln pieces in the home.
“We had a 6-foot-7 maintenance man go through, and anything he could reach, we moved back,” Haake explained.
In fact, she said, visitors often are surprised at just how neat and clean they find the home.
“They’ll walk in and say, ‘This doesn’t smell musty like grandma’s house.’ We don’t want that because it means we have moisture in the walls,” she said.
Like most anyone who grew up in Illinois, Haake took her first tour of the home as a youngster. It was 1976, and she was in third grade.
“At the time, it had this purple striped wallpaper. It looked like a circus tent. I remember that very well,” said Haake, a native of Murphysboro in southern Illinois.
The current exterior color, Quaker brown, and interior look were based on extensive historical research from photographs of the era, newspapers and Lincoln documents, though Haake acknowledged some of the look is based on educated guesswork.
Quaker brown, for instance, was based on a painted brick found in the attic during a 1987 renovation and a New York newspaper description of the home’s color in the 1860s.
Much of the day-to-day work of keeping the home in shape falls to Sherman resident Eli Pollack, who is in charge of roads, utilities and grounds for the site.
“It’s something every day,” said Pollack, who recalled the home was surrounded by city and residential neighborhoods when he took the job in the 1970s. Photos from the 1960s and ’70s show soda trucks parked near the home, crisscrossed power lines and parking meters.
Pollack said the park service worked closely with the supplier to assure a historically accurate Quaker brown color. Otherwise, painting Lincoln’s home takes old-fashioned patience and multiple coats.
“We use a brush, a high-quality brush, but that’s what works best,” he said.
The park service also works with manufacturers to produce the customized wallpaper, though one company used 20 years ago no longer makes wallpaper.
The home was constructed as a 1 1/2-room cottage in 1839, according to a National Park Service profile. The first resident, the Rev. Charles Dresser, married Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd in 1843, and the next year, they moved into the home with their son, Robert.
The National Park Service took over the home in 1972, and in 1987, completed a major renovation that restored the home to its current look.
Historical doesn’t necessarily seem in good taste by modern standards, said Haake. Brightly colored carpet, drapes and wallpaper that might seem gaudy by today’s design standards was intended to offset the low light of candles and kerosene lamps in the 1800s.
One of the early projects for the current restoration work was repainting white wall trim.
“It’s black walnut, which is a beautiful wood, but the Lincolns painted it, so we painted it,” she said.
Sanders said much of the work should be finished by the end of this month, but plans are to spruce up all of the more than two dozen buildings at the site, including 17 historic structures, in time for the 2009 bicentennial.
A crew also is expected in August to begin producing a new film for use in the visitors’ center.
“It’s been a long time, and it has some errors in it that we want to correct,” said Sanders, who added that the new film would center more on Lincoln’s life in Springfield rather than concentrating on the home.
The park service is working on a master plan that will guide the site’s development for the next 15 to 20 years. A draft of the plan should be ready by the end of summer.
But Sanders said the immediate goal is to get the site — and especially the Lincoln Home — ready for 2009.
“We anticipate some large crowds, and we want everything to look as good as possible,” he said.
Tim Landis can be reached at 217-788-1536 or email@example.com.