By Jim Dresbach, Pentagram Staff WriterDecember 16, 2011
As construction and renovation continue at Fort McNair's Grant Hall (Bldg. 20), the structure is revealing more of itself to architects and historians.
During the past year, original portions of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy trial room have been discovered and evidence of who worked in the building has been uncovered.
One of the biggest surprises yielded by Bldg. 20 is where future tourists will literally walk in the steps of history.
"What was interesting was what we found under the [third floor] linoleum," said Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall Directorate of Public Works Architect Suzanne Hren. "We had the asbestos tiles taken off, and these are the floors we believe are the original floors. That was a surprise to us. We will be keeping those just the way they are."
Also recently found in the third floor trial room was a swatch of wallpaper. Hren estimates the wallpaper was applied in the post-Lincoln conspiracy trial era somewhere between 1870 and 1890 when the room was converted into apartments. Still, there will be an attempt to salvage sections of the wall covering.
"They will cut it off and save it if possible," Hren said of the post-Civil War wallpaper. "The material underneath is so powdery. There is no reinforcement behind it. This wallpaper just literally falls off. Getting it off in one piece is the problem. It will probably crumble, but we do have the photos of it." Hren has been visually documenting the Grant Hall renovation with photographs from 2009 to the present. She noted that Bldg. 20 is bursting with historic architectural features. One of those features deals with a famous District of Columbia builder. Around 1870, famed D.C. architect Adolf Cluss provided the building with nine-foot high doors, woodworking and fold-back shutters that are nearly impossible to duplicate for a reasonable price.
"The woodworking and the doors are not off-the-rack doors," Hren said. "The woodworking is beautiful. The challenge is to recreate something like that we can afford." Some 19th century graffiti has also revealed who worked on a past renovation or construction project. On a second floor door, a discovered signature in cursive reads "Isaac Smithson." Those who interpret such findings at Bldg. 20 have deduced that Smithson was a carpenter or worker who renovated the building in the latter half of the 19th century. The planned completion date of the building is late spring or early summer, and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall historian Kim Holien notes that anticipation is high -- both at JBM-HH and throughout the district -- about the addition of another Lincoln historical site.
"The third floor of Building 20 is the final crown jewel of Lincoln sites in Washington, D.C.," said Holien. "This Building 20 at Fort McNair is the last of the crown jewels associated with Abraham Lincoln that has not been [totally] restored and not with access to the public. Now it is under the process of being restored and will be, probably with a limited basis, accessible to the public." No formal decision has been made regarding public accessibility to Fort McNair's Building 20.