In Search of Lincoln's Washington

Many of the sites the president knew are beautifully preserved—and virtually unchanged

Washington’s first art museum (bottom, in 1866) was designed to house the collection of local banker William Wilson Corcoran. Now called the Renwick Gallery, a part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it survives in exuberant contrast to the New Executive Office Building to the north.

Credit: Top: Robert Lautman; Bottom: Library of Congress

On July 18, 1861, three days before the Union's first big battle—and defeat—at Bull Run, William Howard Russell, Washington correspondent for the London Times, spotted Abraham Lincoln "crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, striding like a crane in a bullrush swamp." At six feet four inches, the president was able to keep his nose a little higher than most above the scurrying rats and malarial muck of a city whose grandeur existed mostly on paper, in the two-dimensional imaginings of its chief designer, Pierre Charles L'Enfant.

The president was five months into his second stint as a resident of the city. Lincoln had lived in Washington during the late 1840s, as a single-term congressman with lodgings on Capitol Hill. The District of Columbia had been even rougher and ranker back then, but a greater hopefulness had clung to the place. In February 1848, Congressman Lincoln served as one of the managers for the "Birth Night Ball," a fundraiser for the building of a vertiginous monument to George Washington—a symbol of the capital's aspirations as well as the country's.

A half-dozen years later, with money and national unity in short supply, construction of the obelisk came to a stop. By 1861, President Lincoln could look southward from the Executive Mansion and see only the stubby base of the still-unfinished spire, which the young Mark Twain would soon compare to an old chimney. The Capitol Building, to the east, provided scarcely more encouragement to the presidential eye: Its yet-to-be-completed dome left it looking like a soup tureen without a lid.

This is an excerpt from the print edition of Preservation.

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