Inside President Lincoln’s Cottage

By Judith Rubin, Lighting & Sound America

A change comes over visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage, located on the grounds of the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington, D.C., when they are invited to actually sit on the drawing-room furniture.

After their initial surprise, they settle into chairs they had surmised were 1800s antiques, and turn their attention to the tour guide, who touches a button on a handheld remote. The period chandeliers dim, and the storytelling begins.

“It came from not having a collection,” says curator Erin Mast, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which operates the attraction. “We decided to let people use the furnishings— because many of them are reproductions—and to make the experience about Lincoln’s leadership, growth, and change during the Civil War. Our strength was in the story and the place, not the architecture and the objects.”

There are no original artifacts in the Lincoln Cottage, save the building itself, which was restored by the National Trust and opened to the public on February 18. The trust decided on a theatrical approach, to speak of ideas and actions rather than concentrate on objects. The tour of the cottage uses some AV technology, but mostly it relies on the live spoken word, combined with a few subtle theatrical lighting effects to focus attention, to take visitors inside the period and inside Lincoln’s mind.

We surveyed a broad group,” says Mast, “and found a lot of misconceptions—so we decided to interpret emancipation, which is a key story for us, since Lincoln worked on that policy during his first summer here. We look at why it took Lincoln time to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and what happened as a consequence. And we developed a theme about what the place meant for Lincoln as an alternate residence to the White House: It was a sanctuary, yet it brought him closer to the war. It is not our mission to tell the entire story of the Civil War: We focus on how Lincoln came face-to-face with the war here, but also on his family and the visitors—at least 100 of them—who called on him, usually uninvited, when he was here.”

The lack of a collection “gave us the freedom to use media and reproductions in new ways,” notes Mast. “Everything is put there for a reason. Where we thought an artifact was needed to support the story, we used one. Where we felt we needed an image, we display one on a monitor. Where we wanted specific words from the past, we recorded actors speaking them.”

The residence was, in fact, the official (pre-Camp David) retreat of four different presidents: Lincoln, Buchanan, Hayes, and Arthur. Built in 1842, this two-story Gothic Revival dwelling now holds within its walls a sophisticated infrastructure. It powers and controls theatrical dimmers, an architectural lighting control system, and an AV system that tour guides can operate with custom remotes as they take visitors through the rooms.

A few steps away from the cottage proper is the Robert H. Smith Visitor Education Center, with a mix of AV and exhibits, plus a special gallery called “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” where people can re-enact important Lincoln decision-making situations. The program was developed with VideoArt and Blair, Dubilier & Associates. There are additional exhibits with short films, and an orientation theatre with a three-screen film produced by Cortina Productions. There is also a special exhibit gallery with rotating displays of artifacts. George Sexton Associates provided lighting design services for the visitor center through MFM Design, the exhibit designers contracted by the National Trust. Sexton’s design, included in the exhibit galleries, shop, and “Lincoln’s Toughest Decisions,” includes recessed flush lighting track with miniature MR-16 lamped wall-washers and object lights by Litelab. In the building’s atrium are Edison Price Multipurpose 36/5AA adjustable fixtures, used to light the large-scale graphics. Bob Hartounian of PPI Consulting designed the AV system; ExPlus was the exhibit fabricator.

Tour groups begin in a sunroom with a bay window facing the cottage. The three window shades double as screens. They scroll down automatically on tracks, the room darkens, three Panasonic PT-D3550U 3500-lumen projectors (positioned out of sight above and behind the seats) go into action, and visitors watch a six-minute video, after which they are ushered into the cottage.

Having opted for a theatrical approach, the National Trust sought a museum lighting designer with a theatrical background, and found it in Traci Klainer, a partner in the New York-based firm Luce Group. Klainer and her team designed a programmable lighting scheme that would simulate the look and feel of the original gaslights that illuminated the cottage in Lincoln’s time, in a way that would serve the needs of preservation and modern safety standards, be simple for guides to control, provide subtle theatrical effects for their live presentations, and conserve energy.

Luce Group designed a series of matching chandeliers that hang in place of the original fixtures. Fabricated by Toombs Lighting, they appear to be fed by the original network of gas pipes, but actually get their glow from a pairing of incandescent lamps. “We used an MR-11 and a quartz lamp to get the effect,” says Klainer. “In a gas lamp, you’d have just one flame coming out from the center, but we were concerned about light levels. This combination provides a source in the globe, which is the quartz lamp, and reinforcement, which is the MR-11. We didn’t want to reproduce the flicker, but we did want the soft feel and the appropriate color temperature.”

The network of chandeliers is supplemented by two table-lamp fixtures, antique gas lamps that were wired and connected to the lighting system, and two recessed ceiling lights that provide effects on the first and second floors. Luce Group specified the Pharos control system, provided by ETC. “It helps bring the idea of theatrical cueing into the world of architectural lighting,” Klainer explains, “and it works with the AV system. The Pharos knows the day and the time, and can be seasonally programmed so that, for instance, during the summer, you might take the light levels down a bit. For the period look, we needed to use incandescent fixtures, but the system is set up so that the tour guide can dim the lights remotely when leaving a room, which saves energy. For safety reasons, it is never completely dark.”


Under contract to the AV system installer Avitecture, Akt3, which reps ETC in the Mid-Atlantic region, provided the lighting installation and control package, including programming. There are three ETC dimmer racks and the Pharos control unit. Akt3’s Greg Orth, the systems integrator and Pharos programmer, used RS232 serial communication protocol to program the interface between the Pharos and the AV system.

“You won’t dim in the museum world usually,” says Klainer. “It’s very unusual, because the lights, when dimmed, become more amber and change the color of the art. But here, we wanted to dim, because the quality of light was more theatrical, not your typical museum choice. The ETC Sensor rack is a totally theatrical rig, and perfect for the job.”

Electrosonic provided the design of the AV system and the AMX control system for the cottage. The lead designer for Electrosonic was Jane Hall. In the cottage, the AV gear includes two Panasonic projectors, an Alcorn McBride four-channel digital video binloop, an AMX NXD-CV5 video touch panel, three Alcorn- McBride audio players, a Link Systems EF3116 16-port Ethernet switch, two Panasonic SP65P7W-K 65″ stereo loudspeakers, nine JBL Control 25-WH loudspeakers, a JBL Control 322C ceiling unit, a JBL Control 312CS in-ceiling subwoofer, and one QSC CX-902 plus four QSC CX-702 power amps.

The AV gear in the Robert H. Smith Center includes three Alcorn-McBride DVM-HD digital video machines, a Panasonic TH-50PHD9UK 50″ plasma screen, one Panasonic TH-65PF9UK 65″ plasma screen, two Panasonic TY-SP5008W-K speakers, three Digital Projection iVision 20SX+ projectors, four JBL Control 26C ceiling speakers, four QSC CX-254 four-channel amps, one Rane graphic equalizer, and two Atlas Sound SACR-191 six-channel sound sequencer/controllers.

The initial design of the master control system called for a system of RFID triggers, omitted when a key hardware unit proved unavailable. Each guide relies on an AMX remote that 
communicates with a receiver on each floor. He or she presses a button on the remote, which tells the system what room the guide is in, and sets up the media players in that room. Pressing a second button on the remote activates the sequence of media events in that room. Video Art produced the media for the cottage.

For the sake of preservation and demarcation between historic architecture and modern multimedia, there was no effort to blend the AV components into the cottage—they stand in stark, modern contrast to their surroundings, hopefully making it clear to even the youngest visitors that Lincoln didn’t spend his time at the cottage kicking back in front of a flat-panel TV.

“The exciting thing about President Lincoln’s Cottage is that it is a marriage of museum and theatre,” observes Klainer. “The worlds are very similar—people in both are passionate about telling stories. They just have different concerns and appeal to their audiences in different ways. Light levels in a museum are, many times, governed by preservation, but here we were able to work with a different set of rules, and we came up with a true hybrid.”