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Ford’s Theater

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In my last two posts on our trip to Washington, D.C., and Civil War battlefields, I discussed our return to Washington from Gettysburg and subsequent visit to the National Museum of American History, then our dinner that evening at Café du Parc. In this post, I’ll move on to our visit of Ford’s Theater the next morning (a week ago today)..

I had decided after we visited the battlefield in Gettysburg that the theater would be a perfect place to conclude our Civil War travels, and so it was. We had started our journey on Saturday at Harpers Ferry, where John Brown‘s raid of the federal armory in 1859 played a key role in the build-up to war, and whose takeover by Confederate troops in September 1862 was the lead-in to the battle a couple of days later at Antietam, site of the greatest number of casualties in a single day in US military history. Antietam National Battlefield was, in fact, our next stop, that afternoon. That night we arrived in Gettysburg, whose Gettysburg National Military Park we visited over the next two days. This was the scene of the worst battle of the Civil War, from July 1 to July 3, 1863. After driving to DC on Monday afternoon, we reviewed more Civil War history at the National Museum of American History, and had a look at the furniture used by Generals Lee and Grant to sign documents after Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Now, Tuesday morning, we were to visit Ford’s Theater, where Lincoln was assassinated just five days later.

The theater sits on 10th Street, between E and F Streets. Our hotel was also between E and F, just west of 14th Street. Thus the theater was a short walk away. We had 10:00 reservations, or so I thought. It turns out that I had screwed up in my effort to secure reservations through Ticketmaster two nights earlier, a screw-up I actually blame on Ticketmaster, but it won’t do any good now. There are several options for visiting, depending on what time one chooses and what else is happening at the theater (which is a working theater, with on-going productions). One can visit the museum in the basement, under the theater itself. Or one can combine a museum visit with a ranger talk. Or one can combine the museum visit with the viewing of a short play, One Destiny. I tried to choose the third option. It seems I had selected the second. I was aware of the ambiguity at the Ticketmaster website and so re-started the process several times in order to try to resolve the ambiguity correctly, but Ticketmaster defeated me. When I got to the box office at 9:45 to pick up our tickets, I learned that we were too late — the ranger talk started at 9:30. But I didn’t want the ranger talk. Well, tickets were still available for the 10:00 entry with museum and play, at a charge of $5.00 apiece. This was odd, since Ticketmaster said everything was free, except for fees, which I had already paid for nothing. No matter. No point arguing. We were there for the play. We could see the play. We just had to kiss goodbye the $6.00 I had already invested for nothing through Ticketmaster and pay another $10.00, then get on line, where Gail was already standing, behind a gigantic school group.

At 10:00, we were let in and directed to the museum in the basement. The structure of our visit was now clear. We would be allowed to look at the exhibits until a little before 10:45, when we would be sent back upstairs for the play, and then (I suspected) we would be kicked out; that is, we would be denied further access to the museum, unless we wanted to get tickets for later entry. This is indeed what happened, to Gail’s immense frustration, since we hadn’t had time to see all the exhibits before the play and she wanted to go back downstairs afterwards. It isn’t easy to see everything, by the way, when a group of some 60 kids is wandering around, chatting, texting, etc. I don’t blame them. I wonder how well prepared they were for the visit. They weren’t loud or boisterous. Just distracted. And there was also a group of ten or so bigwigs getting a private tour by a young woman, the quality of whose comments seemed distinctly lower than the text of the displays. This group tended to be more of a problem than the kids, since the group would stand in front of exhibits for minutes at a time while being spoken to.

Anyway, there was lots to see. including the centerpiece: the derringer that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot Lincoln. Around 10:40, we headed upstairs behind the massive school group and took our seats for the play. It was unexpectedly effective. There are two actors, playing the roles of Harry Ford, eponymous co-owner of the Theater, and Harry Hawk, the comedic actor who was on stage in mid-performance when Booth shot Lincoln and jumped down. They review the events of the day, taking on the roles of others in the theater that day as well as themselves while discussing what happened and what might have been. The production lasted about 35 minutes, after which the two actors (Stephen F. Schmidt and Michael Bunce) stayed onstage to answer audience questions for about 20 minutes. They were every bit as good at this as they were at acting. Very impressive. About halfway through the Q&A, the school group got up to leave. Odd. Perhaps they had a plane to catch. They were quiet, under the circumstances, but it was a distraction. The actors wrapped it up, we left, and were required to exit the theater onto the sidewalk. No going back down to the museum.

Our museum tickets also entitled us to a visit of Petersen House across the street, where Lincoln was taken and tended to after the shooting, and where he died early the next morning. One climbs a stairway from the street to reach the front door, then goes into the front room, where Mary Lincoln waited, then the back room, where Lincoln lay and died. Space is tight, only a handful of people are let in at a time, and only 3 or 4 can stand in the back room, from which a door leads down stairs and around a corner to an alley that returns to the street.

I will never forget how powerful the experience was of coming to the end of David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography Lincoln and reading the concluding death scene. I felt I was there, as I described in a post I wrote a year ago, on the occasion of Donald’s own death. We were fortunate to visit Ford’s Theater and Petersen House a year after I read the biography, and fortunate to return.

I’ll close with the final paragraph of Donald’s book, his description of the moments after Lincoln died:

In the small, crowded back room there was silence until [Secretary of War] Stanton asked Dr. Gurley to offer a prayer. Robert gave way to overpowering grief and sobbed aloud, leaning on Sumner for comfort. Standing at the foot of the bed, his face covered with tears, Stanton paid tribute to his fallen chief: with a slow and measured movement, his right arm fully extended as if in a salute, he raised his hat and placed it for an instant on his head and then in the same deliberate manner removed it. “Now,” he said, “he belongs to the ages.”

Categories: History, Theater, Travel

Café du Parc

May 11, 2010 1 comment

In my last post, I described our arrival in Washington, D.C., a week ago yesterday and our activities in the late afternoon. Here I’ll say a few words about dinner that night. When we stayed at the Willard in late January, we had dinner one night at Café du Parc, one of the hotel restaurants.

I described Café du Parc and that earlier meal in this post. As I noted there, it is a French bistro “conceptualized” and overseen by the Alsatian chef Antoine Westermann, who established the three-star restaurant Le Buerehiesel in Strasbourg. We were sufficiently happy with our meal that we were happy to return last week. And I knew exactly what I wanted to start with: the tarte flambée Alsacienne, described on the menu as Alsatian style pizza topped with smoked bacon, onions and fromage blanc. I loved it in January and had been looking forward for days to having it again.

It is indeed good, but extremely filling. I thought I had successfully addressed that by suggesting to Gail that we split it, along with splitting their petite salade verte organique — organic mixed green with balsamic vinaigrette and fresh herbs. That’s what we did, and both were delicious, but still way too filling.

For my entrée, I had a dish I don’t remember seeing on the menu in January: Boulettes épicées de porc et boeuf, described as spiced meatballs with potato gnocchi, fresh salsa and aragula [sic] salad. A great choice. The meatballs had excellent flavor, the arugula was a fabulous complement, and the potato gnocchi was a delight. The only problem was that I was getting full. Gail had the Tagliatelle ”Primavera” — tagliatelles with forest mushrooms, green asparagus and a light morel cream sauce. She was delighted as well, though she might have been content with a few fewer mushrooms.

Full though I was, I didn’t see how to leave without at least tasting one of their marvelous desserts. There was Profiteroles au chocolat chauf — puff pastry filled with vanilla ice cream, served with a warm chocolate sauce — which I happily ate in January. And there was another dessert, not listed on the on-line menu so I can’t properly describe it, but it was some sort of crepe rolled around some ice cream. I went with the profiteroles. As the waiter took the plate away, he asked how it was, and then mentioned — as if he remembered my having profiteroles in January — that we should try some of the newer desserts. I told him how tempted I was by the crepes and he said yes, I should have them, they were just added to the menu that day. He urged us to talk to him next time, if we arranged to have him as our waiter, and he would advise us.

I was thrilled to be a Café du Parc regular. Nothing would make me happier than to return soon. Maybe we should. It’s hard to think of a better way to pass a few days than to go to DC, visit some museums, drive to some historical or scenic sites in the region, stay at the Willard, and have dinner at Café du Parc on our final evening.

Categories: Food, Restaurants, Travel

National Museum of American History

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Julia Child's kitchen, National Museum of American History

[Gail Irving]

In yesterday’s post on our Civil War trip, I concluded with our departure from the Gettysburg Friendly’s after lunch (a week ago yesterday) to drive to Washington, D.C. Here I will describe the remainder of the day, featuring a way-too-brief visit to the National Museum of American History. Read more…

Categories: Culture, History, Travel