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Theatre reopens for Lincoln bicentenary

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

Ford's Theatre, Washington DC
Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth at Ford's Theatre in 1865
Ford's Theatre in Washington, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, has reopened after a $50m (34.7m) restoration project.

Almost nothing of the original interior remains, but the building has been painstakingly restored using crime scene pictures taken at the time by the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.

The theatre is as much a shrine as a place of entertainment and has drawn about a million visitors a year.

The refurbishment comes not only as the US marks the bicentenary of Lincoln's birth on 12 February 1809, but as the 16th president gains renewed prominence, being frequently quoted and praised by the 44th president, Barack Obama.

President Obama used the same bible as Lincoln to take the oath of office and recreated part of Lincoln's inaugural train journey to the capital for his own inauguration in January.

He has also drawn many historical parallels with Lincoln's experience of a country in crisis and searching for unity.

Speaking at the reopening ceremony on Wednesday, President Obama praised Lincoln for his conviction that a divided nation could be made whole.

"For despite all that divided us - North and South, black and white - he had an unyielding belief that we were, at heart, one nation and one people," said Mr Obama.

He said the theatre was "hallowed space" where Lincoln's passion for education and the arts will thrive.

In the decades since Lincoln's assassination, the theatre has had a chequered history.

But many visitors will not realise that they are seeing a replica of the stage and presidential box where the president was shot by the actor John Wilkes Booth, rather than the original.

"I don't think the fact that this is a re-creation detracts from anything at all," says Ford's Theatre Society Director Paul Tetreault.

"First of all, it's such a brilliant re-creation that you actually feel you are in the place where Lincoln was."

'They've shot the president'

The presidential box, with its empty chairs, red, white and blue drapes and portrait of George Washington, dominates the intimate space of the auditorium.

Paul Tetreault
You can see how dramatic the scene would have been that evening
Paul Tetreault
Director, Ford's Theatre Society

The frame of the picture has a small scratch from Booth's spur as he leapt from the balcony.

"You can see how dramatic the scene would have been that evening," says Mr Tetreault.

"The shot rings out, there's a scuffle in the box and then John Wilkes Booth jumps to the stage. He holds up his knife and yells: 'Sic semper tyrannis' (thus always to tyrants), and runs out.

"And then of course you hear from the box, 'Oh my God! They've shot my husband. They've shot the president.'"

The theatre was closed in the following months and converted into an office. Three decades later the floors collapsed, killing 22 workers and injuring 68 others.

The building was repaired and continued being used as an office until the 1920s, when it was completely gutted.

It was not reopened as a theatre until the 1960s, when the first restoration took place. The current renovation has restored the replica created in the 1960s.

Lincoln's ghost

Speaking at the official reopening of Ford's Theatre on the eve of Lincoln's bicentenary, US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said: "Whether or not one believes in the oft-told story of Lincoln's ghost at the White House, it is fair to say that a number of past presidents have felt his presence."

Presidential box, Ford's Theatre, Washington DC
A portrait of George Washington hangs by the presidential box

"John F Kennedy admitted to seeking Lincoln's council in his thoughts, and our new president, Barack Obama, has long studied the life and leadership of Abraham Lincoln.

"Barack Obama's admiration for him stems not only from their shared Illinois roots but also from his great respect for his wisdom at a time of great turmoil."

Much of the $50m restoration fund has been spent on technology to improve the theatre's sound systems and generally enhance performances.

The lobby and box office have been expanded and a basement museum will open in the coming months.

FORD'S THEATRE
1861 - John Ford turns deserted church into theatrical venue
1862 - Building is renovated but gutted by fire
1863 - Theatre reopens and Lincoln attends five times
1865 - Lincoln is shot on 14 April and dies a day later
1865 - Attempts to reopen theatre are stymied; building used for government offices
1968 - Building reopens as working theatre

While many arts projects have suffered as a result of the economic downturn, the Ford's Theatre Society was able to raise the money needed for its 18-month renovation thanks to mainly private donations.

Fundraisers say it is the association with Lincoln that proved attractive to sponsors.

"I think this is an amazing building with tremendous history," says Mr Tetreault. "And we've brought joy back to this theatre - and that's what Abraham Lincoln would have wanted.

"He would not have wanted a memorial to the place where he was shot down - he would have wanted a memorial to his love of the arts. I think he would like what we've done."

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