An Argument for Moving the Cottage, 1903

By Erin Carlson Mast

The  National Trust for Historic Preservation assumed stewardship of the Cottage in 2000, carefully restored it, and open it to the public in 2008.  That act of saving the Cottage is now well documented and was carried out with the blessings of the Armed Forces Retirement Home, the campus in northwest Washington, D.C. where the Cottage stands.  What fewer people realize is that the Cottage’s very existence was seriously threatened a full century before the National Trust got involved, 46 years before the National Trust even existed.  What follows is an argument by one administrator against building what became the Grant Building.  As part of his argument against the proposed location for the mess hall (disrupting an 1878 library) he suggested moving the 1842 Cottage (which he refers to as “Anderson Building”) to another location on the grounds, which would have seriously disrupted the landscape and historic fabric of this house where Presidents Lincoln, Hayes, and Arthur lived. 

The following is reprinted with permission from the Armed Forces Retirement Home Communicator in which was republished the May 19, 1903 U.S. Soldiers’ Home Board Meeting Minutes.

The minutes of the special meeting held at the Soldiers’ Home May 14, 1903, were read and approved, and the Lieutenant General of the Army then submitted the following statement:

I desire to record the reasons for my vote in objecting to placing the proposed new mess hall on the extreme north point of the reservation of the Soldiers’ Home.

  1. As is well known, there are some 500 acres of ground reserved for the Home, affording ample room for the inmates, besides furnishing a park for the city of Washington. The first thing that led to the consideration of this matter was the proposition to enlarge the present mess-room, which is now in what is known as the Sherman Building, in the rear of the principal, or Scott Building. The discussion of this matter has grown until it is now proposed to erect a new building, with the kitchen and mess hall on the lower floor, and dormitories capable of accommodating about 400 men — a number equal to about half the present number of inmates of the Home — in the upper stories. As the fund out of which it is proposed to make an expenditure of over half a million dollars for such a building has been taken from the soldiers of the Army out of their monthly pay, or stopped from their pay by process of military courts, we are practically expending funds not appropriated by Congress, but drawn from the pockets of the soldiers of the Army. As some of these men become disabled, either in battle or through the exigencies of the service, they are taken to the Home to be supported by a fund contributed entirely by themselves and their comrades, and they are entitled to the most careful consideration. There are the most serious objections, in my judgment, to locating such a building on such ground. The most available and most suitable ground for any large building for the Soldiers’ Home is that on the west side of the present Scott Building. It is only occupied now by a small old building, known as the Anderson Building, and the objection to tearing this building down or removing it is that it was once occupied for a short time by President Lincoln. It has not, however, been preserved with sacred regard from the fact that the furniture has been taken out and distributed, and it is now occupied by a few bandsmen belonging to the Home. By the expenditure of a few thousand dollars it could be removed a very short distance to suitable ground and put in perfect order and properly preserved as a memorial hall. The ground would then be available for any building that may be required.
  2. There is no necessity for any building of the character planned. There are already accommodations at the Soldiers’ Home for 125 more inmates than are at the Home at present, and at the same rate of increase as has taken place in the past years the vacant accommodations will not be filled during the next five years.
  3. The proposed plan contemplates the removal of the Library Building, which cost $39,298 to build in 1878, and thus there would be a dead loss of so much money.
  4. The construction of the so-called mess hall would cost at this time $580,000. It is well known that the cost of material and the price of labor at the present time is 40% more than it was two years ago, or what it probably will be when an additional dormitory building is actually required; hence, to construct such a building now would involve dead loss to the Home of $165,714, making a total unnecessary loss to the Home of approximately $205,000.
  5. The location of such a large building in rear of the other buildings now there would be most unsightly, and, besides, in the building as proposed there is no porch or veranda where the inmates could go out and exercise in the open air, which is highly important for their health. In fact, the proposed building would look more like a prison than a comfortable home.
  6. An important objection is to the proposed location of the proposed building, the site selected being the extreme corner of the reservation, where the inmates of the building would be shut off entirely from a view of the city of Washington, where from the front of the building they would only practically look into the rear of the other buildings, and on the other sides would overlook two graveyards in the immediate vicinity. A more doleful and cheerless prospect could not be found in the entire reservation. I consider the selection of such a place would impose an unnecessary hardship upon the brave and heroic men who will be obliged to occupy the building.
Ms. Mast is the Curator at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

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Filed under History, Preservation

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