Just days after Americans celebrated the beginning of this calendar year, online news announced that authorship had been determined for a fragment of a letter found in a mouse’s nest inside a wall of Abraham Lincoln’s home in Springfield, Ill., during its restoration in 1987. While the news was not greeted with wild national enthusiasm, the story thrilled a few Lincoln students like myself, who remember the mammoth-size restoration effort to preserve the Lincoln Home a quarter of a century ago, and a few of the secrets the house gave up during the process.
The house was built in 1839 for the Rev. Charles Dresser, who would officiate at the marriage of the Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd on Nov. 4, 1842. By 1844, the couple needed a larger home for their growing family and purchased the 1½-story, Greek Revival-style cottage from Dresser for $1,500.
The home would be remodeled seven times by the Lincolns. In 1846, the Lincolns added a bedroom on the first floor. Four years later, Lincoln improved the front yard by having a brick retaining wall and fence put along the front of the lot. Five years later, he extended the wall and fence along one side of the home.
By 1856, the Lincolns also expanded the home to a full two-story house at a cost of $1,300. They resided in the home at Eighth and Jackson streets for 17 years, the only home Abraham Lincoln ever owned.
After President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, the house eventually became the property of Lincoln’s only surviving son, Robert, who maintained it as rental property. In 1887, he donated the home to the people of Illinois, who preserved it as a memorial to the martyred president for 85 years.
The state of Illinois donated the house to the United States in 1972. By the mid-1980s, it became obvious that the house was in dire need of repair and stabilization after tens of millions of persons had walked its floors, climbed its stairs and rubbed its woodwork.
I distinctly recall the house swaying — physically moving — while I was standing in a front upstairs bedroom during a tour in 1986. The National Park Service closed the house the following year and embarked on a 13-month, $2.2 million renovation, structural rehabilitation and redecoration of the house. It would be the most money the federal government ever spent on a single restoration project.
The letter fragment that recently made news was one of eight documents found in a kitchen wall, under dirt and broken plaster, in a mouse nest, dating from 1846 to 1849. Three unmatched children’s shoes were also found under a portion of an unknown staircase discovered while installing new ductwork for mechanical systems.
These discoveries demonstrate once again that preservation is not just about the physical repair and restoration of a building, but also about reconstructing the lives of the people who have lived or worked in it. Old wallpaper patterns, paint colors, documents, photographs, previous renovations and additions, all speak to us about previous owners and their histories. The stories of people are as important as the stories associated with the buildings themselves.
What information is lying under your floorboards, hidden in your walls, waiting to be found in your attic, sitting in that box in your closet?
Join Preservation Racine Inc., at 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 3, when it commemorates the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth by showing a documentary about the enormous restoration project to preserve the Lincoln Home. The meeting will be held at Gateway’s Racine Campus in the Great Lakes Room. Parking is available in the rear of the building. For more information and how you can become involved, visit www.preservationracine.org.