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Full text of "The history and construction of Ford's Theatre in Washington / by Bun Po Kang."

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Bun Po Kang 







April 27, 1933 



Things which, have historical interest do not necessarily 
have to "be large in size, but they must have had some unusual 
events happen in them. Ford's theater, although it is not a 
huge structure in comparison with some of our modern theaters, 
is an interesting and historical place in town because Abraham 
Lincoln was assassinated there. 

This building was erected one hundred years ago for the 
10th Street Baptist Church by Thomas Berry, the builder of the 
United States Patent Office. It was converted into a play 
house in 1859. Three years later Mr. James Ford with other 
assistants bought the building and improved it to a full stand- 
ard theater of its time. In the same year the theater was 
destroyed by fire. The repairs were soon completed, On April 
14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by an 
actor J. W. Booth, while the President and his party were attend- 
ing a play. Since the assassination the building has never 
been reopened as a theater. It was closed for eight years and 
then used for governmental offices. Twenty-two employees were 
killed during the falling of the front part of the building 
in 1893. Shortly after the repairs were completed the building 
was taken in control by the Director of Public Buildings and 
Parks of the National Capital, and used as a museum to commemorate 

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the assassinated President. Since that time the "building 
has been opened for public inpeetion every day in the week. 

The walls of the "building were built with red bricks in 
a style called the brick arch construction. Three floors and 
a basement are in the building, making an overall dimension 
of seventy feet deep, one hundred and four feet wide, and 
fifty-two feet high from street level. The floors are supported 
by fifteen ten-inch columns and seven seven-inoh columns. The 
decoration was very elaborate. The roof of the building is 
not supported by columns but by wooden trusses of seventy feet 
spans. Slate roofing was hung on wooden sheathings, A rect- 
angular opening was provided on the third floor to admit light 
and air to the second floor. 



A Chinese proverb says that a holy mountain is not neces- 
sarily high, "but it depends on the presence of fairies ; and a 
holy river is not necessarily deep, hut It depends on the pres- 
ence of dragons. This means that a great thing is not necessa- 
rily "big, but it must have something unusual about it. Bethlehem 
is one of the thousands of small villages in the western part 
of Asia, but to tourists it is a sacred city, because Jesus 
Christ, the Saviour of the human family was born there. Ford's 
theater is one of millions of theaters in the world, but the 
people look at it as a shrine, because it was there that Abraham 
Lincoln, a lover of humanity was killed. "Before the assassi- 
nation Ford's theater vras an ordinary play house with no histor- 
ical value. After the assassination the old-fashioned opera 
house became a holy place made sacred by the precious blood of 
the world hero whom not only the Negroes but all other slaves, 
no matter what color and what raoe they are, esteem as the 
father of real freedom and humanity. 

For this historical value, Ford's theater is a place to 
be well known and remembered so that the spot where the great 
man of this country and of the world was forced to take his 
everlasting rest may not be forgotten. 


It is very Interesting to note that Ford's theater is 
exactly one century old this year. Its foundation was laid 

- 2 - 

"by Thomas Berry, a well known builder of his date who built 
the United States Patent Office, in 1833, The building was 
originally constructed as a plaoe of worship for the First 
Baptist Church, known as the 10th Street Baptist Church, 
Reverend 0. B, Brown was the pastor. The building was used 
for this purpose until the ownership was changed. 

In 1859 the building was converted to a play house. It 
had been serving this purpose until the assassination occurred. 
The first performance in its history was "THE MIAD QUEEN". 
During the civil war this opera house was a carriage repository. 
The upper floor, however, was changed into a variety hall and 
called the Oxford. 

A few years after the building began its theatrical career, 
it was Improved into a full-fledged theater. Accommodations 
for attendance were largely increased as well as the capacity. 
At the end of the civil war it was altered more decidedly and 
assumed a more attractive name of Ytell T s Opera House to honor 
Mr. Berry's son-in-law. 

Mr. James Ford, of whom the building was then named, with 
the aid of many other liberal citizens bought the building in 
186S, transforming it into a still more attractive opera house 
and opened it for business in March of the same year as a most 
elegant bijou theater. The plan of transforming and redecorating 
was prepared and submitted by Mr, A. B. Mullett , who enlarged 
the stage and increased the seating capacity of the building 
to about two thousand and one hundred in three floors which 
occupy an area of about five thousand square feet. 

- 3 - 

There are several great and thrilling events which have 
occurred in this building which are of especial importance. 
On December 30, 1862, shortly after Mr. Ford purchased the 
"building, a great fire caused by the explosion of escaped gas 
imperilled the building. Besides the structure itself, the 
actors' and actresses' expensive costumes, such as jewels and 
garments, were destroyed. The damage was estimated to cost 
more than twenty-five thousand dollars. 

On the evening of April 14, 1865, the most catastrophic 
event occurred, While President Abraham Lincoln, accompanied 
by his party, attended the play, sitting in his private box, 
an actor, John Wilkes Booth broke into the private box and 
shot the President, He was fatally Y/ounded and died the next 
morning. At this time the theater was only three years old 
after its reconstruction. 

After the assassination the building was never again used 
as a theater. The government took possession of this property 
by paying the amount of two hundred twelve thousand and two 
hundred and fifty dollars ($813,250.00). The building was 
closed for eight years, and then it was used for the Adjutant 
General's Office. 

On the morning of June 9, 1893, while the government em- 
ployees were working in the building at their regular duties, 
a great portion of the roof collapsed, killing twenty-two persons 
and wounding a still larger number. It was understood that 
the Government had been warned about the dangerous condition 
of the building, but the repair was not done early enough to 

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prevent such a horrifying accident. The cost of repairing 
after the fall amounted to six thousand dollars, The work 
was completed on December 31, 1893 under the direction of the 
chief engineer of the United States Army. 

A bill was passed by the House of Representatives in 1930, 
that the building should be taken from the Secretary of War to 
the Director of Public Buildings and Parks of the National 
Capital to be used as a museum and library for exhibiting 
President Lincoln's possessions and the history of his life, 
so that the great man might be always remembered by the people. 
The appropriation fund voted by the Congress of May 11, 19 26 
for making this building a modern memorial was fifty thousand 
dollars. Up to this time the total cost of reconstruction of 
the building was estimated by the Director of Public Buildings 
and Grounds for the District of Columbia to be one hundred 
thousand dollars. 

Recently the building has been very much improved. During 
the summer of 1931, several remodelling operations were done. 
This includes the replacing of skylight, snow board, and neces- 
sary roof. The west front was sand blasted and the bricks were 
restored to original color. The building is now under the 
direction of the Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks 
of the national Capital as voted by the Congress of 1930. 


Although the building has been reconstructed several times, 
it is still remains in its ancient style. Three floors and a 
basement have a total area of approximately six thousand and 

- 5 - 

two hundred square feet. The depth of the "building from north 
to south is about one hundred and four feet with a total height 
of fifty-two feet. This is given as its overall dimensions. 
It is the largest theater in this oity of its date. 

Approaching from the front of the "building on 10th Street, 
one can recognize this historical building by its ancient appear- 
ance. It is adjacent to the central office building of the 
Potomac Power Company. On the ground floor there used to be 
five doors during Lincoln f s day when it was used as a theater. 
The door at the extreme right end was the general entrance to 
the galleries. The next door was used generally by the officers 
of the theater, and through this President Lincoln was admitted 
for his last recreation. It led to the presidential private 
box. The box office was located between these two doors. The 
next two doors were seldom used as entrances except during mild 
weather, but they and the last door to the left were used as 
exits. When the tragedy occurred these two doors were closed, 
as during the month of April the weather is rather cold. 

Since the building was converted into a museum, four of 
the five doors have been closed up and reconstructed to form 
windows, and the center one alone remains. On each of the 
other two floors there are as many windors facing the street 
as there are windows and door on the first floor. 

As it is adjacent to the other buildings, the structure 
has no windows on the sides. The portion of side wall un- 
covered by other buildings were painted gray. 

For the first floor according to the ancient plan of thiB 

- 6 - 

building, a large stage was located at the eenter with a dress- 
ing room adjacent at one side. Private boxes were constructed 
at both edges of the room. The box used by President Iincoln T s 
party was on the south, The height of the ceiling is thirteen 
feet. It was supported by fifteen columns with a base diameter 
of ten inches and seven of seven inches. A thin partition was 
built running north and south across the center to separate the 
room into two compartments. Stairways leading from one floor 
to the other are at the south side. Each stairway is about 
five feet wide and the rises are about six inches. Small rooms 
are placed behind the stairways for the workers to keep their 
belongings. The ceiling was built of small arches about five 
feet spans which rest on the beams at their ends. 

It was said that although the theater was very up-to-date 
at President Lincoln^ time, the chief ushers had <iuite a diffi- 
cult time to find some good furniture to accommodate the Presi- 
dential party, as the notice of his attendance was given to the 
management of the theater rather late. The ushers succeeded in 
securing a special soft rocking chair for the President, while 
the other members of the party accommodated with ordinary chairs. 

The door from the presidential box to the gallery was 
supposed to be closed and locked while the President was inside, 
but J. W, Booth often played at Ford's theater and knew where 
the box key was hung. He was known to the attendents and his 
presence aroused no suspicion. He got hold of the key to come 
in and he put a chair against the back of the door, so that 
no body could come in to arrest him. 

- 7 - 

There was a lavish outlay upon the ornamentation of the 
theater. The front of the boxes, their Casa Guide windows and 
the archways of the auditorium were draped with silk hangings 
of fine texture and unique design. The drop curtain and faoings 
of the stage were vrai semblance of blue silk and white lace, 
exquisitely painted. The walls were tinted and the Y/indows 
were to be adorned with stained glass which added very much 
of the rich effect of oolor. These decorations made the theater 
the best one in Washington at that time. 

The walla of the structure were built of red brick, which 
were believed to have been made in the vicinity of Washington, 
probably in Maryland. The columns supporting the building are 
steel. The thickness of wall is eighteen inehes. All bricks 
are laid in stretcher bound form. 

The doors and v/indows were constructed of wood, while the 
outside frames are in briok arch forms. The transoms of the 
doors are semi -circular in shape. The height of the doors are 
ten feet and a half and the windows are eight feet. The width 
of both are about five feet. The exact dimensions are given 
in the sketches, and the floor plans have all the necessary 

All steps leading from the street to the building are made 
of granite. Although they do not appear as beautiful as marble 
or limestone, they are built of the hardest and most durable 
rock known. 

Both the second and third floors, which were used for the 
offices of the Adjutant General of the United States Army after 

- 8 - 

the government possession, are all open floors without any 
partitions in them. The second floor is sixteen feet and six 
inches high, while the third floor is thirteen feet and six 
inches, Wo column is used on the third floor to support the 
roof, hut an opening is found at the center of this floor to 
admit light and air to the second floor. The hole is rect- 
angular in shape. The length is nineteen feet and two and 
three-sixteenth inches and the width is twelve feet and four 
inches. The winding stairs to the attic consist of twenty 
steps. The diameter is five feet and six inches. 

The roof construction is one of the most outstanding 
features. The wooden truss spanning the seventy feet between 
bearing walls are perhaps the longest wooden spans ever built 
here. The roofing is slate laid on wooden sheathing. 

The basement of the building is entirely different from 
the other floors in plan. It has partitions to divide it into 
small compartments. A heating plant was located at the south- 
east corner with two boilers. The heat was conducted toother 
parts of the building by ducts along the wall and the floors 
of the hall. The columns on this basement are square in shape. 

It has been believed that all the steel and iron work In 
the structure might be made by the process of charcoal casting, 
as the Winder Building in Washington which was built at about 
the same time was found to have used charcoal casting iron. 


For its historical background and its simplicity of 
construction this building is a place of real interest to 
be studied. 

- 9 - 

The information are collected from the following sources: 

1. The Director of Public Buildings and Public Parks 
of the national Capital. 

2. The Washington Post. 

3. The Evening Star, 

The writer of this article is indebted to the valuable 
information of the Director of Public Buildings and Parks of 
the National Capital; and the helpful advice of Dean A. N. 
Johnson, Professor S. S, Steinberg, and Professor R. H. Skelton. 

- 10 - 

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