By Courtney DockApril 5, 2013
JOINT BASE MYER-HENDERSON HALL, Va. - Military and community leaders gathered for a ribbon cutting ceremony officially marking the end of renovations of Ulysses S. Grant Hall on the Fort Lesley J. McNair portion of Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall April 3.
Grant Hall, or Bldg. 20, is historically known as part of the federal penitentiary in 1826 and the third floor was the location of the 1865 trials of the Abraham Lincoln assassination conspirators.
"Fort McNair is the Army's third oldest installation - third only to West Point and Carlisle Barracks in Pennsylvania," said Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Commander, Col. Fern O. Sumpter. "You will hear about what happened here in the waning days of the Civil War following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Today's ceremony gives us the opportunity to remember and appreciate several of Fort McNair's pivotal moments in history."
"Grant Hall is arguably the most important historical landmark in South west Washington," said Hans Binnendijk, retired vice president for research at the National Defense University on Fort McNair. "It is here that the last chapter of our calamitous Civil War ended."
Binnendijk transported guests back to 1865, explaining how they were seated where rows of jail cells used to sit, stacked three high. A tall brick wall stretching from Grant Hall to the parking lot enclosed the penitentiary yard.
"The scaffold where four of the conspirators were hanged is near the front of the tennis courts. They were buried just to the right of the scaffold," he explained. "John Wilkes Booth, who was killed in Virginia while trying to escape, was buried temporarily at the far end of this walkway."
After the official ribbon was cut, guests were able to tour the third floor court room where the trials were held. They were met by docents dressed in period clothing from the Surratt House Museum who answered questions about the room and items on display.
Marine Master Sgt. Eric Ridgeway, Headquarters and Service Battalion, Headquarters Marine Corps Henderson Hall adjutant chief, was surprised at the size of the rooms.
"It's much smaller than I imagined," he said. "I had done a little research before coming and I expected it to be a lot bigger. I can only imagine what it was like back then during the trial with everyone in here."
Over the years, Grant Hall was nearly demolished on more than one occasion, Binnendijk explained. The renovation epitomizes the term team effort. Binnendijk thanked the many people involved in saving the building from demise, ensuring the historic building would continue to stand on the grounds of Fort McNair for years to come.
Author James Swanson was at the ribbon cutting ceremony and was able to take a tour of the court room. "I always love going to places where history happens. I can't write about history until I see the places or go to it. And for a long time I was hoping and praying this court room would be restored," he said. "After spending years writing about this story, the conspirators, the trial, it's a great thrill to see it so beautifully restored. I'm very happy and very impressed.
"It's a really good example of what a partnership with the military, the government, private citizens, historians, scholars can do. I'm very impressed," he added.