That was a standard welcome that Mr. Lincoln gave the many visitors to his White House office between March 1861 and April 1865. “What can I do for you?” was another way Mr. Lincoln greeted guests who hoped he could grant a favor.
The creators of Mr. Lincoln’s White House hope they can indeed do something for those interested in Mr. Lincoln’s four years and one month in the Executive Mansion. Almost all of President Lincoln’s presidency was spent in Washington — except for occasional visits to the nearby war front. Much of Mr. Lincoln’s time was spent literally within walking distance of the White House. With the War and Navy Departments housed just west of the White House and the Treasury Department and State Departments equidistant to the east, the President was just a short walk away from his key advisors on war policy. The social headquarters of Washington was Willard’s Hotel, on Pennsylvania Avenue just beyond the Treasury Department. Secretary of State William H. Seward, whose home was gathering place for diplomats, journalists and politicians as well as a target for Mr. Lincoln’s evening walks, lived across Pennsylvania Avenue on Lafayette Park.
Other sites where Mr. Lincoln lived for more than a year are now open to visitors in either a restored or reconstructed state – Hardin County, Kentucky; Spencer County, Indiana; New Salem and Springfield, Illinois. Visitors can get a physical understanding of Mr. Lincoln’s life during these periods. Through the auspices of the National Park Service, most of these locations are also accessible on the Internet. A web site from the Abraham Lincoln Historical Society contains all of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and will also feature the product of meticulous research into Mr. Lincoln’s legal career.
Mr. Lincoln’s Washington, however has not been frozen in time and only glimpses of it are available at Ford’s Theater, the Petersen House and the White House. Much of Mr. Lincoln’s White House can only be visited through virtual reality. The first floor of the White House is indeed open to the public but the famous “Lincoln Bedroom” is not. Even if it was, it occupies space in the White House which during Mr. Lincoln’s tenure was not a bedroom but his presidential office. The ornate rosewood bed in the “Lincoln Bedroom” comes from what Mary Todd Lincoln had redecorated as the Prince of Wales guestroom. The desk in the room was used by President Lincoln at the Soldiers Home, not the White House Visitors to Mr. Lincoln’s White House today need to appreciate a building which was much like its current version but different in important other ways. For example, the conservatory and stables that stood near Mr. Lincoln’s White House were long ago torn down. Since 1902 the West Wing has stood in the general vicinity of the conservatory’s original location. What was once a furnace room on the ground floor is now the diplomatic reception room.
Mr. Lincoln’s White House has been built on the work of the many historians of the Civil War and biographers of Mr. Lincoln. On display are:
- Mr. Lincoln’s years in the White House from the perspective of those who later wrote about him in memoirs, biographies and Civil War histories.
- The people – family, politicians, generals, journalists and politicians – who lived in and visited the White House.
- The rooms and physical layout of the White House and what occurred at each location.
- Other buildings in nearby Washington which Mr. Lincoln frequented during his four years and one month in office.