The David Wills House Opens to the Public
On President Lincoln's 200th birthday, the National Park Service opened the Gettysburg home of David Wills, the man who hosted President Lincoln the night before he gave his now famous address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery. The $7.2 million renovation and partial restoration of the large brick building on town square widens the circle of places where we can, at least spiritually, feel close to the the country's most revered president.
When President Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg on Nov. 18, 1863, he was the guest of the man who helped find a suitable burial ground for Union soldiers killed in the recent battle and who had organized the dedication ceremony. Wills had sent a personal note to Lincoln urging him to come to Gettysburg and to stay at his home.
Lincoln was given the best rooms in the house, a suite belonging to Wills' wife Catherine, that overlooked the town square. The feminine bedroom had blue and peach wallpaper and a carved mahogany bed covered in a soft, cream-colored coverlet. Next door was her private sitting room.
It was here that Lincoln finalized his address. He could be seen through the second story windows pacing back and forth between the two rooms by residents who had gathered on the square hoping he would say a few words to them. He declined their request and later sat down with 37 others for a dinner given by the Willses for many of the people staying at the house.
The next morning the parade to the cemetery formed outside the house and Lincoln and other dignitaries rode horses to the dedication. Later he returned to the Willses home for a reception before leaving by train for Washington.
Fore more than a century after the Willses sold the house in the 1890s, the building was used as commercial space. It has served as a hotel, offices, photo studio and pharmacy.
Considering the size of the building, the museum is a modest place. Whole rooms on each of the first two floors have been taken up by handicap accessible bathrooms. An elevator, also required of new federal construction, takes up even more space. The third floor is leased to a private business.
On the first floor, there is an entrance hall, a ticket and information desk, one exhibit room and Wills' law office. On the second floor, the hallway serves as another exhibit area as does another full room. Then there is what had been Catherine Wills' sitting room, now an exhibit area, and her restored bedroom, now known as the Lincoln bedroom.
As anyone who has restored an old house knows, a lot of money can be be eaten up by necessary repairs that aren't visible when the work is done. In the case of the Wills house, a large chunk of the budget was spent on stabilizing the 1818 building that had been weakened by the removal of load-bearing walls on the first floor when a business expanded its space. The interior walls were rebuilt, a non-original exterior door removed and plaster walls restored. When the Willses lived there, all the the floors were yellow pine. There was so little left of the original wood that all the floor boards remaining in the building were only enough to restore the floor in the Lincoln bedroom.
The Lincoln bedroom is the only room that has the same furniture that was there when the 16th President stayed at the house. In an extraordinary and generous move, descendants of the Wills family have donated Catherine's original carved, mahogany bed, the cream-colored coverlet that went with it. and her wash stand.
Just to stand in that room is worth the trip to Gettysburg.
February 17, 2009; 7:12 PM ET
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