More than 200 people attended Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall's (JBM-HH) quarterly Public Open House of Grant Hall's historic third-floor courtroom Aug. 5 at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington D.C.
Grant Hall, Fort McNair's Building 20, is named after Ulysses S. Grant, general-in-chief of the Union Army during the Civil War and the 18th President of the United States. The building was part of the Federal Penitentiary built and completed on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal in 1829.
The Penitentiary became the center of national attention in 1865 when the trial and sentencing of those implicated in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln was held on the third floor of the eastern wing of the building in a newly prepared courtroom. All eight conspirators were found guilty and four were sentenced to be hanged. The hanging occurred (next to the building that is now Grant Hall) on July 7, 1865.
The penitentiary was constructed to house individual prisoners in each cell as a means to promote discipline, silence, isolation and hard work. The massive three-story main building was designed to accommodate 160 prisoners. It was expanded between 1830 and 1831 by adding a pair of wings to the center cell block. Today's Grant Hall remains from the eastern wing of that expansion.
With the decline in activity at the Washington Arsenal after the Civil War, the Penitentiary was demolished except for the eastern and western extensions.
The arsenal was closed in 1881 and the post transferred to the Quartermaster Corps and was known as the Washington Barracks. In 1948, the post was renamed to honor Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, commander of the Army Ground Forces during World War II.
"During the 1900's, the only section of the penitentiary building that remained was used for a variety of purposes, to include as quarters for officers and enlisted personnel," said Leah Rubalcaba, Community Relations Officer, Public Affairs Office, JBM-HH. "Grant Hall ceased to be quarters for military personnel in 1996 and was turned over to the National Defense University (NDU) for their use. NDU refurbished the rooms from quarters to offices and officially began using the building to office NDU personnel in 2000."
At one point, Grant Hall was scheduled to be torn down.
"A professor from NDU who worked in the building petitioned his congressman saying you can't let this happen, this is a historical treasure, we have to restore it," said Rubalcaba. "Congress came up with the funds to restore the building. It was out of historical preservation coffers and not DOD funds, and the building renovation took place from 2009-2012."
The third floor of the building was restored to depict the courtroom as it appeared during the 1865 trial. Courtroom features were recreated based on artistic renderings and written descriptions of court proceedings. Some furnishings and artifacts on display are on loan from the production company of a 2011 historical film about the trial, and other artifacts and documentation are from the NDU Special Collections Library.
"Most the furnishings and artifacts are actually on loan," said Rubalcaba. "When Robert Redford was getting ready to film "The Conspirator," members of his production team came to visit the courtroom site. They couldn't film here, since the building was being renovated, so the movie was filmed in another location. After the filming was completed, Redford's production company loaned many of the furnishings, artifacts and props from the movie, like Mary Surratt's hat and John Wilkes Booth's hat and pocket watch, to the Grant Hall courtroom."
"The ribbon cutting for Grant Hall was held in April of 2013 and we started these open houses in May of 2014," said Rubalcaba. "We average anywhere between 200 to 500 guests per open house. When visitors come, they can just soak in the sights of Grant Hall and the courtroom. We have historians and volunteers on site to provide information about the courtroom, the trial and the building that was the federal penitentiary."
Grant Hall Public Open Houses are held quarterly on the first Saturday of the second month of each quarter. During a calendar year, those months are February, May, August and November. The next Grant Hall Public Open Houses are Nov. 4 in 2017 and Feb. 3 and May 5 in 2018. Open House hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Today, the first two floors of Grant Hall are the home to the leadership and operations staff of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.