Historic and Thriving

by Lisa Mulcahy
Glass Menagerie at Ford's Theater
Glass Menagerie at Ford's Theater

Ford’s Theatre: A hallowed past meets a modern aesthetic

As we all learned in grade school, Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC was the unfortunate site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Lincoln was attending the comedy Our American Cousin in a box about 12 feet over the stage when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth, a supporter of the Confederacy. What even lots of history buffs don’t know, though, is that the theatre itself has an interesting history.

The theatre has been rebuilt twice as well as undergone two massive renovations. Today it is a thriving regional theatre, it was among the first to produce the now Tony nominated Come From Away, as well as being a treasured National Historic Site. Read on for a historical timeline of the Ford’s original construction, reconstructions, and modern-day theatrical venue/museum incarnation, which attracts approximately one million visitors per year.

A Troubled Past

The theatre began life rather unluckily. Originally known as “Ford’s Athenaeum”, the building promptly burned down after its opening in 1861. Owner John T. Ford rebuilt the theatre in brick, expanding its size, reopening two years later. After Lincoln’s assassination, the government ordered Ford to close down the space. The government bought the building from Ford, and converted it into a three-floor office space to be utilized as a warehouse. Still more misfortune followed in 1893, when basement construction caused a building collapse that killed 22 people, and injured another 68 workers in the building. Pretty much all that was left of the Ford at that point was its original facade. Another rebuilding occurred, however, and this time, a museum devoted to Lincoln was added during the renovation; this museum opened on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1932. And in 1933, The National Park Service (NPS) was put in charge of the building.

After a few decades, NPS decided to restore the building to its roots as a theatre, and they did so with a meticulous attention to historic detail. In 1968, Ford’s Theatre reopened to the public, as a stunning reproduction of the space as it existed on the night the president passed away.

Enhancing Through Expansion

Ford’s Theatre was never destined to be a relic of the past, though. A new $50 million renovation was completed in 2009; this time, buildings on both sides of the street around the theatre were added to create a bigger “campus.” The structures came to be supervised by Ford’s Theatre Society, a non-profit group; a new artistic staff stepped in to update the Ford’s programming agenda around this time as well.

“When our new theatre director Paul R. Tetreault came to Ford in 2007, he was tasked with reimagining how theatre would be produced here,” says Kristin Fox-Siegmund, the theatre’s deputy director. “I think if you’re coming to work at Ford’s, you’re in for quite the education! You have to embrace history, as well as be ready to produce four shows a year. It’s a very unique experience, balancing the important aspects of Lincoln’s story, the assassination, and the work of doing good, fulfilling stage work.”

Interactive exhibits about the theatre’s history, educational programs and workshops (including oratory presentations students can participate in), seminars, guided tours—all of these exciting new features were also incorporated into the theatre’s ongoing season offerings. “Originally, the National Park service ran Ford’s during the daytime, and we kind of came out to do plays at night,” says Siegmund-Fox. “When we were expanding our work here, we really embraced Lincoln as part of our mission, and what we do.” Tetreault and Fox-Siegmund are also concentrating on new ways to make Ford’s artistic work accessible to even more audience members.

All in all, the Ford’s innovations—its renovations, creative reimaginings, and technological goals for the future—owe everything to its past. And that’s more than OK with its artistic leaders. “You can’t hide the Lincoln box,” says Fox-Siegmund. “You have to embrace the environment. We’re proud to do that! We’re going forward, looking at what stories we want to tell—and how we want to collaborate on those stories in this fascinating and unique space.”