Edwards Place gets ready to welcome visitors

By Ann Strahle

As visitors open the front door to Edwards Place in Springfield, they immediately find themselves transported to a mid-19th century home. Erika Holst, the curator of collections, takes visitors on tours and keeps up an informative patter. “We are standing now on the back porch of the house as it was in 1833.  The owners remodeled in 1857 and they enclosed the back area, which would have been the side of the house in 1833. The exterior would have been whitewashed because the back porch would have been a workspace, so we built in these windows so we wouldn’t lose what we discovered.” Those small windows open to expose the original whitewashed bricks, discovered through a recent renovation.

Constructed in 1833, Edwards Place is the oldest house in Springfield. Through fundraising and matching grants, the first floor of the home was recently restored and officially reopened in late February. As the city of Springfield readies itself for the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s funeral, Betsy Dollar, the executive director of the Springfield Art Association, sees the event as a perfect opportunity to showcase the home’s historical significance. “It’s actually nice timing that there is this big event that’s getting national attention, it’s like our debut party,” she says.

The home was owned by Benjamin Edwards, the youngest son of Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards and brother-in-law of Mary Lincoln’s sister. The Lincolns did spend time at the home, and the most famous artifact in the home, the courting couch where Lincoln and Mary Todd sat during their courtship, has a place of honor.

“We are excited to show the public that we are here, and a viable house museum,” said Dollar. “Erika has this vision that any furniture that is upholstered in blue, people can try out. They can see how it feels to sit in a parlor of that period, and how it differs from a contemporary living room. The luminaries of the time all gathered in this house, so we can do pretty broad history lessons of Springfield of the period,” Dollar said. “We want to get people through here to realize that this is part of the history people come searching for when they come to visit Springfield. It may not be just Abraham Lincoln, but all the other people from his time period who made a difference here, who took Springfield from a muddy little town on the prairie to the state capital.”

During the weekend honoring the anniversary of Lincoln’s funeral, Edwards Place will host three Victorian mourning teas in which participants will learn about mourning customs of the time. Even though all of the teas are sold out, there are still opportunities available to experience the history of Edwards Place throughout that weekend. Civil War re-enactors will be camping out on the lawn of the Edwards Place and the Springfield Art Association May 1, 2 and 3, serving as the headquarters for the 10th Cavalry.  Edwards Place will also be open for special tours on Sunday, May 3, from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., which includes period-appropriate refreshments.

“Once we get people into the Edwards Place and familiar with the fact that we are here, everyone will discover that we have a full-fledged art school, an arts library, and all kinds of resources that they may not be familiar with,” Dollar said. “And for the out-of-town visitors, that weekend will not be long enough for everyone to see everything, so hopefully they will come back and take a regular tour of the house when it is not so crowded.”

In conjunction with the anniversary, the Springfield Art Association will debut a new exhibit called “Sacred to the Memory: 19th Century Mourning Artifacts” on Saturday, May 2, at 4 p.m.  “People are very interested in understanding the culture of mourning that people were living in when Lincoln died, so we thought it was an appropriate tie-in,” Holst said. “Lincoln’s funeral was a national catharsis. In this one person who died, people projected and got out all their grief for everyone who had died in the entire four-year process. It was a kind of national climax of all the mourning and grief that people were feeling for the last four years.”

Some seven million people viewed Lincoln’s body or watched the funeral train pass by on its 12-day trip to Springfield in 1865. The reenactment of the procession to the cemetery and Lincoln’s funeral will take place May 3.

Organizers expect thousands of visitors this year, and some are creating a map to help out-of-town visitors find their way around. As Dollar said, “We don’t want tens of thousands of lost people in downtown Springfield.  The Enos Park Neighborhood Association in conjunction with the Springfield Art Association, Downtown Springfield  Incorporated, and the Company’s Coming committee are creating a map that shows the route of the procession and as many event times and locations as we can include.”  The maps will be available in mid-April at the Springfield Art Association and the visitors center, along with downtown businesses, hotels and restaurants.

In terms of Edwards Place, Dollar and Holst hope the attention the home receives during the anniversary weekend will help jump-start interest in the renovation of the second story, a renovation they hope will help take the house museum into the 21st century by making it more cutting-edge and appealing to visitors.

Ann Strahle is an assistant professor in the Communication department at University of Illinois Springfield.