Everyone knows that Ford's Theater was where President Abraham Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865. Lincoln was taken across the street to the Peterson boarding house, where he died about nine hours later after having never regained consciousness.
The site of Ford's Theatre (the east side of 10th Street NW, between E and F Streets NW) was vacant and undeveloped until 1833. The First Baptist Church of Washington built a church there that year (although it was also known as the Tenth Street Baptist Church to distinguish it from other congregations.) The church was a very large one, with a ground floor, a large balcony, and a small third-floor balcony above that! The First Baptist Church merged with the Fourth Baptist Church in 1859, and the congregation left the building. Because the church had a raised dais at the rear (where the pulpit and altar stood), and because it had moveable seating, the church had often been used for musical presentations.
The land on which the church stood had an alley behind it, known as "Baptist's Alley." The alley had been laid out in 1792, and like most D.C. alleys it was extremely wide. This was a time when most buildings had a stable in the back to accomodate horses and carriages. Alleys in D.C. were designed to be very wide so that carriages could be turned around. The alley formed a fishhook-shaped extending northward from E Street into the middle of the block, then jogging westward about a third of the block before making a short jog south again. A narrow, zig-zagging courtyard extended to the north from the fishhook's jog south, and midway along the fishhook's westward jog was another alley extending north to connect the fishhook with F Street. The east-west portion of the alley was 30 feet wide (about 10 metres), while the connection to F Street was just 15 feet (5 metres) wide. Right next to the northeast corner of Ford's Theatre was a small stable.
The very rough map, not quite to scale, shows how this worked.
Anyone visiting Ford's Theatre today should note that this layout is totally changed today. Several buildings have been knocked down, and the courtyard moved west. That courtyard, by the way, is now a full alley which connects with F Street NW. The southward jog is still there, although it extends even further toward E Street NW now. The northward connector to F Street NW is now gone, and instead the connection from E Street NW extends all the way to F Street NW now. (You'll notice that on some tour guide sites, people don't do their research and assume that the western alley which connects to F Street NW is "the" alley used as an escape route. They're wrong.)
Baltimore theater owner John T. Ford leased the building on December 10, 1861, for five years with an option to buy. He rented it out to the Christy Minstrels. The minstrel show closed on February 27, 1862, and Ford renovated the building extensively inside. He spent the then-gigantic sum of $10,000, and on March 19, 1862, the building re-opened as "Ford's Atheneum."
President Abraham Lincoln attended Ford's Theatre for the first time on May 28, 1862. Mary Todd Lincoln, his wife, was an inveterate theater-goer, and the First Couple attended the theater as much as they could. They'd attended Ford's Theatre eight times -- five times in 1863 and three times in 1864. The President had seen "Fanchon, the Cricket," "The Marble Heart" (which starred John Wilkes Booth), "Henry IV" (four times!), and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (three times) in 1863. In 1864, he'd seen "King Lear" and two concerts. Sometimes, Mrs. Lincoln went without him.
About 5:00 p.m. December 30, 1862, a defective natural gas meter broke in the cellar, causing a massive fire. The blaze continued far into the night, and by morning only the brick walls remained. Buildings north and south of the theater were also damaged.
The "New Ford's Theatre" was much larger than its predecessor. On February 25, 1863, Ford purchased about half of Lot 11 (which was just to the north of the original church) from Robert D. Clokey. He leased the northern half of Lot 9 (just to the south) on February 1, 1963, for 99 years from William H. Phillips. Ford incorporated the "Washington Theatre Company" to build the new theater. Its stockholders included Ford, Richard Wallach (Mayor of Washington), George W. Riggs (president of Riggs National Bank), and other prominent businessmen. He took out a loan for $5,000 against the unconstructed building, and paid it to the First Baptist Church, along with five $1,000 loans (each of which came due in a different year). This gave him control of the property in February 1863. On May 27, 1863, he took out a loan against the land. To pay for the cost of the building itself, he issued shares in his Washington Theatre Company, each share worth $500. The building cost $75,000, and it appears that Ford issued even more stock in 1863 to pay for additional construction. Work began on February 28, 1863.
It appears that what remained of the First Baptist Church was demolished, as were the damaged buildings to the north and south. Quicksand was discovered when they were digging the foundation, and it had to be removed before construction began. The foundation for the "New Ford's Theatre" was sunk 20 feet the ground.
Lot 11 was north of the theater. Ford didn't own the southern sections of Lot 11, but he did own the northern section. So he built a three-story brick building on what he did own, and ran a narrow hallway in back of the existing, rinky-dink wood buildings on the southern half of Lot 11 to connect his theater to this "north addition." The dressing rooms for the theater were all in the north addition. A narrow circular stairway was in the back of the building, and windows on the second and third floor provided light for these stairs. The star's dressing rooms were on the first floor, and each had a window. There were two windows in the western wall on the second and third floors, too. Unfortunately, no plans were made to connect the "north addition" passageway to the "new building," so a door had to be cut in the theatre's north wall about 16.5 feet from the east (or back) wall of the ground floor of the theater.
The four northernmost arched doorways of Ford's Theatre originally opened onto the lobby. These provided access to the ticket window in the north, the orchestra seating (on the ground floor), and the "dress circle" seating on the second floor balcony. The sourthernmost arched doorway provided access to another ticket window, and to the stairwell leading to the "family circle" (the balcony on the third floor). Generally, the middle doorway was kept closed (except in inclement weather). Dress circle patrons entered through the northernmost door, and orchestra patrons though the doors on either side of the closed middle door. The southernmost door was for "family circle" patrons. A ticket window divided the lobby between southermost door and its neighbor.
The south wall never extended as far east as the north wall did. That's because there was a narrow public pedestrian alley on the south side of the original church structure. So Ford built a wall with a zig-zag in it: The south wall ran east for 85 feet, then north for 3 feet, and then east 22 feet before joining the rear (eastern) wall of the theatre. Undoubtedly, Ford had illegally encroached on an alley to the south of the theater, and was clearly trying to pretend that he'd maintained the alley back there.
As with the north side of the building, there'd been a building to the south of the theater. Ford owned this entire lot, though. So he built a "southern addition" there, and made the building directly adjoin his new theater. The south addition was only 25.5 feet north-south and 51 feet east-west (just half the length of the theater next door). It had no cellar. On the ground floor of the "south addition," between the theater and the "south addition" proper, there was a 4-foot-high passageway. It extended all the way through the south addition from 10th Street to the alley. (Above this passageway were the second and third floors of the southern addition, which shared a wall with the theater. You can see the door to this passageway in yellow on the photograph.) This passageway jutted into the alley in the rear for about 11 feet, providing a covered walkway (the north side of the walkway being the south wall of the theater). About 16 feet from the east wall of the theater, or 5 feet inside this passageway, there was a door cut into the wall of the theater. It permitted access to the stage in the wings just behind the box on stage-right. On the third floor of the southern addition, another door was cut through the theater's wall to provide access to a lounge, cloakroom, and restroom. Ford's offices were also on the third floor of the south addition. The ground floor of the "south addition" was rented out to the Star Saloon, and a doorway cut through the wall to provide access to the saloon from the covered passageway.
The east wall formed the rear of the theater. On the northern end of this wall was a small stage door that opened inward. In the center of the east wall was a door 11 feet high and 12 feet wide, through which scenery could be moved. Giant, arched windows similar in size to those in the western wall existed between the scenery door and the pedestrian door, and between the scenery door and passageway. On the second and third floors were four massive windows just like in the western facade. These windows helped light the back-stage area during the day.
The roof ridge covered the "fly-galleries" (where scenery, lighting, ropes, and other stuff was hung from). Three large hooded, wooden frame ventilators jutted upward from the roof ridge. Ten hatches on the roof ridge -- five on the north slope and five on the south slope -- provided additional ventilation. Ford's Theatre was considered the best-ventilated theater in the city, and at a time when there was no deodoran and people bathed infrequently this was a major plus. The roof also sprouted six chimneys (three on the north and three on the south side).
The theatre opened to the public on August 27, 1863. The theater was lit by natural gas, with detailed plaster moldings, fine wallpaper, gilded moldings, and frescoes throughout the interior. On the north wall, the stairs ran straight toward the rear of the theater and up to the second floor. The stairs accessing the third floor on the building's south side, however, were winding circular stairs. The lobby had a main central door which led to the orchestra level seating. The box office separated the southernmost door from the rest of the main lobby. One window faced north toward the lobby; another faced south toward the circular stairs. One window faced east, looking into the main theater (so that the ticket vendors could see when the play was about to begin). Although we don't have completely accurate information about how the theater was heated, it's likely that there was no central heating and that it individual stoves were used instead. Semicircular niches in the rear of the orchestra level appear to have contained the heating stoves. Eight cast-iron columns supported the dress circle and the family circle balconies. The walls were white-painted plaster with gold gilt plaster moldings throughout. Since the earlier structure had burned, the new theater contained faucets along the orchestra level walls where fire hoses could be attached. An inverted, saucer-shaped dome in the ceiling helped reflect light back downward as well as provided a decorative feature.
Like nearly all theaters at the time, seating for the 600 patrons on the orchestra level was provided by unpadded wooden chairs with slat backs and cane bottoms. The chairs were moveable. (Often, patrons would grab a chair and go sit with their friends, causing haphazard seating on the floor and in the balconies.) The back half of the orchestra level was covered in wood parquet flooring. This area was less expensive than the front half of the orchestra level. Only the aisles were carpeted. The orchestra level floor was not a smooth gradient, but descended in huge arc-like stpes of cement toward the orchestra pit.
The dress circle level was accessed by the straight stairs on the northern side of the theater. This level was probably made of wood. Again, it descended toward the front in a series of arc-like broad steps, rather than on a continuous gradient. Seating for the 425 patrons on this level was provided by the same type of wooden chairs as on the orchestra level. Minimal heat was supplied by chimneys from the stoves below, which ran up through holes in the floor at the rear of the dress circle.
The family circle level was accessed via the circular stairs on the southwest corner of the building. A double-door in the south wall led to a lounge, cloakroom, and bathrooms. Seating on this level for the 675 patrons was provided for by hard wooden benches. Natural gas lights projected from just below the balcony railing, causing glare and smells on this level.
Beneath the stage was a basement. It was about five and a half feet deep, and extended from the back wall forward to the front of the stage. The orchestra pit was its furthest reach. The basement was unlit and unfinished, with a cement floor and brick walls.
The theater contained eight small boxes for VIP seating. Four were on the same level as the stage (two on the left, two on the right), and could be accessed from short steps leading up from the orchestra level. The four on the second floor were accessed by taking the stairs to the dress circle, and then going through a door, down an unlit passageway, and through another door. (The same passageway, about 10 feet long, opened onto both boxes. A door in the north side of the passage opened onto the first box. A door in the east end of the passageway opened onto the second box.) The two boxes on stage right on the second floor could be combined into a single large box. Seating was generally the same the wooden seats from the orchestra level, but special guests could be accommodated with stuffed chairs and a stuffed sofa. The interior of the boxes was in cut dark red velvet wallpaper. Heavy yellow satin drapes and lace curtains, tied back with velvet ribbon, could be lowered to provice privacy. All boxes were carpeted. A chandelier hung from the roof down in front of the second-floor boxes to provide additional lighting.
There were problems with the building, though. The 10th Street facade was out of plumb, and clearly bowed outward in the middle. The foundation work was also poor. Sometimes it was cement, and sometimes brick. In some places, a mixture of cement and brick was used! Although the foundation was supposed to extend 20 feet below the surface, it didn't. In some places, it didn't extend that low. And sometimes, the excavation extended down to 20 feet, but the builder used dirt, rock, fill, and sometimes just crap and junk to fill in the excavated area -- and then laid down a 15 or 10 foot-deep foundation on top of this!!
Parts of the building were never finished. For example, the wooden pieces holding the window cornices in place were not covered up, even by April 1865. Ford originally planned to have the top of the building to be adorned by three groups of statuary, and for the sharply slanted four floor to have a pediment (bas-relief statues set against the flat facade). But this, too, never happened. The cantilevers which were to support these structures jutted out from the building like teeth. (In time, they were enclosed in wooden casings to cover them up.)
Ford produced a whopping 495 performances at his theatre in the two short years it was open. Most stage productions lasted a mere two weeks, and many concerts, balls, and other events lasted a single night.