Lincoln-era history comes back to life
By Clem Gaines
WASHINGTON, D.C. - History lives again.
How would you like stand in the very courtroom where the conspirators who assassinated President Abraham Lincoln were tried and convicted…and where some say a ghost abounds?
Or how about a visit to Fort Myer's historic Old Post Chapel where hundreds of key life-changing ceremonies happen every year and which also represents the last Army post that defended Washington, D.C., during the Civil War?
Thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, these building have received a breath of new life in the form of key renovations and upgrades.
The upgrades to Grant Hall, also known as Building 20, were as normal as a renovation to a 10,000 square foot facility can go, according to the Eli Hirsch, the Corps' project manager. But the documented stories about strange occurrences in the building are anything but normal.
Built in 1832, Building 20 -- an historic, four-story structure with masonry-bearing walls and wood floors -- served as an addition to a federal penitentiary to accommodate female prisoners. In 1865, however, the third floor served as the courtroom for the military trial of the accused conspirators of President Lincoln.
The $4 million project to reconstruct the building and courtroom posed significant and unique renovation challenges. An historical survey was commissioned to assure that no historical elements would be disturbed during the work. These constraints required the team to take extra precautions such repairing the existing mechanical system in such as way as to not remove original plaster and trim. The electrical system was brought up to current standards and new restrooms were added. Life and safety upgrades included a new fire and smoke detection system, fire suppression system and a fire alarm upgrade.
"Numerous historical consultants also provided supporting documents to assure that we attained a high degree of accuracy in the recreation of the courtroom," Hirsch said. From its windows, you can see where the convicted conspirators, including Mary Surratt, the first woman executed by the Federal government, were hanged in July 1865.
The timing of the project provided a unique connection to a movie. Hollywood legend Robert Redford directed "The Conspirator" that was released during the renovation in April 2011. It dealt with the arrest and trial of the seven men and one woman charged in the Lincoln assassination. Army archivists from Fort McNair arranged for some props used in courtroom scenes to be loaned for display in the now-renovated courtroom.
During the project, the Hirsch team knew about the unexplained events in Grant Hall. They were documented in a book by Phyllis McCllellan called "Silent Sentinel on the Potomac" written at the bicentennial for Fort McNair.
"Many are the ghost stories told of Mrs. Surratt's footprints melting the snow between the prison and the gallows, of a window mysteriously steaming up in the room where Mary and her daughter Anne kept vigil all night before the hanging," McClellan wrote. "The Jim Droskins lived in apartment #20-5 from 1977-1980 and told of trying to get their son to sleep when the boy looked over his father's shoulder and abruptly stopped crying. Jim had felt a hand on his shoulder, but there was no one in the room. They often felt a presence in the house."
In more recent times, according to Kim Holien, former historian for Fort Myer and Fort McNair, a Catholic priest was living in the building. He would return to his basement apartment and find the washer and dryer turned upside down or across the room in a locked laundry room. This event, along with a number of other events, encouraged him to leave Building 20 and seek living quarters elsewhere.
Today, Grant Hall has two floors of offices used by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Given its historical interest, Fort McNair officials provide occasional tours to the third floor courtroom. The project was completed in May 2012.
OLD POST CHAPEL
On Sept. 18, 2013, another Hirsch-led team joined dignitaries at Fort Myer for the ribbon cutting ceremony at the renovated Old Post Chapel. The $2.9 million project included upgrading the existing facility, built in 1934, as well as improvements for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
If the Grant Hall renovation had national historical significance, the Old Post Chapel project had intense and direct significance to individuals. The chapel, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, annually hosts more than 900 funerals and memorial services. Also, many weddings and receptions are held there. Now, military personnel and visitors alike will have ceremonies in an updated building that is historic and modern, at the same time, and much more accessible.
In her opening remarks, Col. Fern Sumpter, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall commander, said the 2013 work had to be done on time since she did not want to "reschedule another wedding."
Construction began in late January 2013 and had to be done by September. Hirsch emphasized that Baltimore District engineers developed the design in coordination with Fort Myer. Project and customer coordination included the installation department of public works, the Virginia Historical Preservation Office, The Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission.
A key renovation was installing a handicap accessible ramp connecting the first and second floors of the building. Also, the restrooms in the front vestibule and two in the basement were expanded and made fully accessible.
Other renovations included a new fire alarm and notification system, bringing the open stairwell enclosure up to current code, installing a new mechanical system and upgrading the electrical service to the building.
In particular, the support areas for the Army's Old Guard ceremonial unit were greatly improved. Rather than using a porta-potty behind the chapel, the area which housed the transformer was converted to a restroom and shower facility. The area outside this room was converted to a lounge for this highly-trained team as they awaited arrival of families and friends to honor loved ones.
Now with better accessibility to the basement area, the project included an upgraded visitor's lounge with improved comfort and better lighting where families and friends could gather. A new pantry/kitchen area was provided outside of the Visitor's Lounge. Upstairs, the chapel and all public areas where repainted and the lighting above the chancel and altar were enhanced.
"All interior renovations were designed to maintain an historically accurate level of finish so that new work appeared to blend in with the existing building. Also, prior to building turn-over, the church organ was cleaned and tuned," Hirsch added. The renovation was completed on time and on budget with a sweetener -- in their construction efficiencies, the team found $25,000 to replace the 25-foot front canopy destroyed by a summer windstorm.