LEXINGTON, Ky. -- It's a miracle that the Mary Todd Lincoln House survives as one of Kentucky's most important historic sites. What if it had not been saved? What if the 20th century owner had succeeded in selling it in the name of progress? Without the link to President Lincoln, his wife's elegant childhood home would have been lost forever.
Fortunately, the state and preservationists fought and won a legal battle in the late 1960s to stop the wrecking ball from destroying the landmark. The nonprofit Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation then began the tedious task of restoring the two-story Georgian brick dwelling and in 1977 opened the Mary Todd Lincoln House, the nation's first site dedicated to a first lady. Even if one has only a passing interest in the Civil War or the 16th president, the National Historic Site is worth a visit as a window into Kentucky life in the 19th century. The state wasn't all wilderness in those days.
It becomes obvious on the docent-led tour that the restorers were like detectives reconstructing a long-forgotten crime scene. The house had been turned into a warehouse decades after Mary's father, Robert S. Todd, died of cholera in 1849. What if the records of the home auction that followed his death had been destroyed? Without the detailed lists of every piece of furniture and object that was sold, restorers would have been unable to re-create the rooms as they were for the Todd family. The guide pointed out the pieces of furniture and objects that were original to the house. One of Mary's sisters saved fabric from some draperies, so those were reproduced using the fabric scrap.
The Todd and Lincoln family histories are woven into the 45-minute tour of the home that began as a country tavern and inn on the west side of Lexington in 1803-06. Todd, from a wealthy local family, bought the 13-acre property in 1831 and converted the tavern-inn into a 14-room home. A big house was necessary because he was the father of 16 children in two marriages. Mary Ann, born Dec. 13, 1818, was the fourth of seven children of Todd and Eliza Parker, who died in 1825. Todd and his second wife, Elizabeth Betsy Humphreys, had nine children.
At a time when young women seldom were given formal educations, Mary was enrolled in private schools for 12 years and was fluent in French, among other accomplishments. In 1839, she went to live with her older sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards in Springfield, Ill., where she was introduced to her brother-in-law's friend Abraham Lincoln, who was nine years her elder. After a whirlwind courtship, they became engaged, but he later broke off the engagement. The couple reconciled and were married in Springfield in 1842.
The Lincolns and their two sons stayed in the Todd family home in 1847, when they were en route to Washington, where he would serve his only term as a US representative. The guide pointed out the original game table in the family parlor where the future president played cards and the guest room where the Lincolns slept. The long-legged Lincoln used the stair landing as a reading spot.
The tour began in the Twin Parlors, adjacent rooms with a door between them that could be closed. One was where the gentlemen socialized and smoked cigars; the other was for the ladies. The mulberry china plate on a parlor table is an original from the dinnerware Mary chose for the White House in Lincoln's first term. In the dining room, there are pieces from the pink china set selected for his second term but never used. Looking at the plates, I wondered how it might have been if the Lincolns could have spent their golden years together.
The tour takes a set-the-record-straight approach about the oft-maligned first lady. Even back then the press and gossips of Washington were relentless in their lies and criticism of her. She was labeled extravagant in her spending on clothes. The wags also accused her of being a spy because she was from the South and had family members in the Confederate Army. During the war, she couldn't attend the funerals of relatives killed in action because it would have triggered an uproar of disapproval.
Tragedy was part of the Lincolns' lives. The restored house has visible reminders of those sad times. In the master bedroom, a composite portrait shows the Lincolns with sons Robert and Tad. Within the portrait is a small one of Willie, who died in the White House. In a memorabilia room, an original playbill announces ''My American Cousin" at Ford's Theater for April 14, 1865. That was the night the Lincolns attended and John Wilkes Booth shot the president. He died the next day. Some of Mary's mourning clothes -- she wore black for the rest of her 17 years -- are displayed.
What if Lincoln had not been murdered? Even here in Lexington, that remains the most haunting question of all.
Jan Shepherd is a freelance writer in Boston.