May 23, 2024

Humble, Consequential, and Emotive President Lincoln’s Cottage: A Q&A with Callie Hawkins

Located on a rise on the Northwest side of Washington, D.C. is President Lincoln’s Cottage (PLC), a National Trust Historic Site. This gothic-revival mansion home is where President Abraham Lincoln traveled to escape the heat in the summer months, but also where he grappled with the terrible loss of life during the Civil War, and worked through nation-changing decisions, including the Emancipation Proclamation.

Over the years, the staff at this historic site have transformed it into a place for visitors to take a moment to consider not only contemporary issues, but also ones that are deeply personal, all through the lens of President Lincoln and his family.

In addition to visiting in person, visitors can experience the site virtually through social media, and view past programming on the site’s YouTube page. For Executive Director Callie Hawkins, however, it is the podcast “Q&Abe” which provides the best virtual opportunity for what visitors experience in person, as each episode focuses on a real-life question that tour guides have received.

View of a woman, Callie Hawkins, smiling at the camera with a green top. In the background is blurry building that is the historic site President Lincoln's Cottage.

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

Callie Hawkins is the executive director of President Lincoln's Cottage.

Hawkins said, “My co-host and I spend a little less than an hour really going down the rabbit hole to answer each question. We’ve explored questions ranging from: “Was Lincoln gay?” to “How could Lincoln sleep if slavery was happening?” and so many things in between. It’s clever and curious, and I promise you, we always end up in unexpected places.”

Learn more from Callie Hawkins about the site she described as “humble, consequential, and emotive.”

What first inspired your love of history?

I reflect on this a lot, because I keep pretty close to the vest that I don’t just love history. I’ve never been one for facts and dates—that’s not how I learn—I don’t know that I would have described myself as a history lover. But, when I went to college, a very transparent conversation with my advisor led me to pursue a major with the least amount of math and science possible. I studied English and History and really flourished in courses that were interdisciplinary.

As a person, I am wired for connection and story, and the further I studied, the more I realized that history is deeply both of those things, and I began crafting opportunities to put the past in conversation with the present in ways that were meaningful to me personally.

That’s what I love most about my job now.

View of the back of President Lincoln's Cottage in Washington, D.C.

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

Exterior of President Lincoln's Cottage

What's your earliest memory of experiencing a historic site?

Growing up, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to go on family vacations with my parents and sister. The first awareness I had of an historic site was on a trip to Colonial Williamsburg when I was 4 or 5. My sister and I ran along some open green space with a hoop and stick—pretending to be Mary and Laura Ingalls, I’m sure.

On another family vacation when we were older, my dad devised a plan to keep my sister and me present and engaged. We each got to plan our own day; the twist was that we had to identify the feeling we were chasing and reverse engineer the places in the area we would visit based on those feelings. It was one of the first times I connected the idea that places can and should make you *feel* something. I’ve held onto that and really try to think about how to create experiences that facilitate that at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

View of the President Lincoln's cottage, profile and top hat, with people in the entrance of President Lincoln's Cottage blurred out in the background.

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

Profile view of a statue of Abraham Lincoln observing visitors at President Lincoln's Cottage.

When people visit PLC, what you want them to see, do, and feel while they are there?

Lincoln’s humanity looms large at the Cottage, and it’s perhaps the best place in the country to understand Lincoln as both a private man and president. I’m often struck by all the ways Lincoln was human in this place and all the opportunities that are present for visitors today to fully be themselves while here. When people visit the Cottage, I hope they glimpse the view of downtown Washington that Lincoln had from his back porch. The Cottage is located on a hilltop—one of the highest in D.C.—and I think about this place as giving him both the literal and figurative latitude to just think about things differently.

While here, I hope visitors will run their hands along the banister—the same one that provided stability for a war-weary and grief-stricken Lincoln as he made his way to bed each evening. And, I hope people will feel the full-bodied sensation that sometimes happens to modern visitors when they walk inside the Cottage. The “Lincoln shiver”—as we’ve affectionately dubbed it—tends to occur in people when the story and place collide. It’s involuntary and beautiful.

What is your favorite part of your site?

It’s honestly so hard to identify any single room or corner or floorboard as my favorite feature, but when I closed my eyes to try to envision the Cottage, an image of a single window on the second floor popped up. The window is on the front of the house and looks out onto the front yard and the country’s first national cemetery just beyond the tree line.

When I think about that window, I think about how Lincoln would have passed it at the end of each long day, carrying to bed his own deep personal grief and the collective grief of the nation, and again in the morning as he faced a new day, fresh with opportunity and more potential tragedy.

I wonder how many evenings he cracked it slightly to let in some cool air and the solemn sound of Taps emanating from the cemetery. That spot specifically reminds me of the heavy burden Lincoln carried at this place, and how he got up every morning to new chances and challenges.

It’s such an important message about the work of democracy, and I think the fact that thousands of people each year pass by that same window and can catch a glimpse of their own reflection reminds us that this work is for all of us. That’s really powerful to me.

View out a window facing the grounds of President Lincoln's Cottage. There is a blue sky and you can see the tip of one of the rooflines at the bottom of the window.

photo by: President Lincoln's Cottage

A window on the second floor of President Lincoln's Cottage.

What project at the site is energizing you today?

Recently, we convened a group of 20 museum and historic site colleagues, social scientists, and academic historians to envision what might happen if we centered humanity and belonging in the nationwide commemorations of America’s 250th anniversary that’s coming up in 2026. The convening has helped us as an organization define how we want to hold space for the public during this time and how we can help our field create a new vision for America at 250 that fosters compassion and belonging for all people. I’m very excited for our work to coalesce around these themes for the next few years.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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