By Erin Carlson Mast
The interpretation in the Cottage is focused on Lincoln’s presidency, of which he spent nearly 14 months living here at the Soldiers’ Home. The tour does not emphasize decorative arts or furnishings for the sake of aesthetics, and is minimally furnished–in part because very little information exists regarding what the Lincolns had in the Cottage. Any furnishings present in the Cottage have a specific purpose in supporting the stories of Lincoln’s presidency, particularly as they unfolded in this place. Though the Cottage isn’t fully furnished, the sense of home is a vital part of the interpretation.
Since opening to the public a year and a half ago, President Lincoln’s Cottage has been conducting online visitor evaluations and conducted 3rd party evaluations last summer. The feedback from visitors suggested that two rooms meant to elude to home were missing the mark. It occurred to staff that while our preservation philosophy dictated period lighting and floor finishes, period wall finishes were ultimately omitted in the treatment plan in period sympathetic rooms (though period trim was suggested, this was ultimately omitted as well)–they were only included in the treatment plan for period rooms. The shell of the room (warm period light levels, restored flooring, period wall finishes) would give the sense of home even that room was not filled with furnishings. The staff revisited the debate about painting or not painting the period sympathetic rooms, and determined that what was ultimately avoided because it might be a distraction was in fact having the opposite effect. The white, non-period finished walls were creating a cold, neutral environment, (Figure 1) rather than the warm immersive environment that would evoke home without saying the words. Why not try painting the rooms afterall and see if that in fact improves the visitor experience without detracting from the stories that illuminate Lincoln’s presidency at this place?
During the restoration and incredible amount of time and resources were dedicated to studying the Cottage, the authentic artifact. Detailed reports catalog various aspects of the 19th century Cottage that are from Lincoln’s time.
A comprehensive paint and finish analysis conducted by Frank Welsh in 2002 as part of the Cottage restoration plan provided the necessary information on period finishes for the two rooms in question, the Dining Room, and the Parlor. The Parlor was “Light Pink” and the Dining Room “Light Grey Pink.” Last weekend President Lincoln’s Cottage staff rolled up their sleeves and painted the Parlor walls. Based on the paint and finish analysis and with advice from Gail Caskey Winkler of LCA Associates, staff selected Queen Anne Pink (Benjamin Moore HC-60) as the “Light Pink.” The impact of painting the room, while subtle, was immediately apparent when standing in the room. Even when photographed on a grey, cloudy day, the difference is apparent in photos (Figure 2). Suddenly, when you’re in the space, you are reminded that you are in a home, whereas before, it lacked that specific feeling. A palm leaf fan, mentioned in one of the first-hand accounts of Lincoln told in this room, was also finally added and is visible on the table.
Staff will continue to evaluate how visitors react to the rooms and the stories and topics in those spaces and compare results.