Ford's Theatre was constructed in 1833 to be used as the First Baptist Church of Washington. The building was used as a house of worship until 1861 when the First Baptist Church merged with another congregation and moved out. Many of the members of the church were dissatisfied that the building would be turned into a theatre which was considered a less than proper form of business at the time. Most third floor balconies were where prostitutes plied their trade in that day because of poor lighting in the theatre. Many former church members predicted a tragedy would accompany the use of a former place of worship being turned into such an unholy building.
John T. Ford
To John Ford's credit, he did all in his power to prevent prostitutes from plying their trade in his theatre, though the tragedy would still occur. In 1862, Ford would close the theatre and spend ten thousand dollars having it renovated by James Gifford and carpenter Ned Spangler. It opened as Ford's Atheneum and was considered extravagant with seating of 2500 people. Unfortunately, on December 30, 1862, a fire caused by a faulty gas meter destroyed the interior of the building.
Most would have called it quits there. John Ford had just lost twenty thousand dollars as a result of the fire. Ford immediately decided to rebuild. He would have James Gifford gut the building and start over. The rebuilt theatre would cost Mr. Ford seventy-five thousand dollars. The theatre would be even more extravagant than before. It would seat fewer patrons at 1,720, but provide greater comfort with the extra room. James Gifford had even consulted the Smithsonian Institution about ventilation and better acoustics to make it even better than before.
Of course, the tragedy the First Baptist Church had predicted occurred at Ford's Theatre in the eyes of most northerners on the night that Booth shot President Lincoln. Following the assassination, the Federal government paid Ford $88,000, some say $100,000 in compensation for the building and ordered that the place could never be used again as a place of entertainment.
Interior of Ford's Theatre while being used by the Federal government
Beginning in 1866, the building would be used to store government records for the war department, house the Army Medical Museum and serve as the Library of the Surgeon General's Office. By 1887, the building was being used to house clerks for the war department. On June 9, 1893, a forty foot section of the front of the building collapsed inward from the third floor throwing clerks and debris all the way to the basement. The casualty count was extreme, 22 employees were killed and another 65 were injured. The cause of the disaster was ruled to be the placing of too much weight on the floors and a building contractor who excavating beneath the pillars in the basement without proper supports in place. At this point, the curse story began to grow. Following the collapse, the building was closed.
Views after the collapse of 1893
The building would be used for storage by the Department of the Interior until turned over to the National Park Service in 1933. In 1955, congress authorized an engineering study to have the building reconstructed. The funds were approved and reconstruction began in 1964 and Ford's Theatre was reopened in 1968. It operated until 2007 before undergoing further renovations. Today, the theatre only holds an audience of 661 people.
My wife bragged to me that she stood in the doorway of the box where Lincoln had been killed. She stated that there is a glass barrier there to prevent anyone from entering the box as the site is considered holy by most. Imagine the frustration on her face when I informed her that she was not looking into the box where Lincoln actually died. When the building was renovated in the 1960's, the entire interior was gutted and rebuilt. Although, one may be standing nearly in the exact spot Lincoln was killed, there is nothing about the box that is original. Makes one wonder why it is blocked off by glass.
Where is the Lincoln box in this photograph from the 1960's
Another photo of the reconstruction of Ford's Theatre from the 60's