The year 2011 marks the sesquicentennial of the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865). So it is especially fitting that the Africa Center’s Grant Hall, with its singular history, is undergoing a top to bottom renovation and a reconstruction on the third floor.
Grant Hall, built in 1831, was home to the Africa Center’s resource management directorate before the construction work began in 2010 and is scheduled to reopen later this year. Staff members who work on the lower floors will have newly renovated office spaces that will retain such period details as original oak interior doors that are hung with ornate brass hinges. A few fortunate staffers will have offices with original marble mantelpieces, though the fireplaces will not function.
Historically, the most interesting part of Grant Hall is the top floor; it was once the women’s workroom when Grant Hall was part of the federal prison that no longer exists. The third floor is being reconstructed to the configuration at the time of the 1865 trial of the seven men and one woman charged in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
A drawing from an 1865 issue of Harper’s Weekly (see image on attached Flickr gallery) makes the trial room appear larger than any of the rooms currently on the third floor. The drawing shows more than 50 people in the room including the defendants. However, in the nearly 150 years since the trial, walls were added to create more rooms as the use of the building changed. Renovation plans call for removal of walls and stairs to reconstruct the space to the dimensions at the time of the trial: 28 feet by 40 feet. Decorative columns will be reinstalled in the trial room.
The construction superintendent with Polu Kai Services, which is overseeing the work on Grant Hall, said as his workers tear down walls they often uncover interesting, old building techniques such as wood lathes behind plaster.
The $4.6-million restoration is being overseen by Chuck Fanshaw, National Defense University’s Director of Engineering, and Suzanne Hren, an architect at the Directorate of Public Works. Ms. Hren’s specialty is historic restoration.
Research on the restoration began in the spring of 2009. Other agencies closely involved in the Grant Hall project are The District of Columbia Historic Preservation Office, The National Capital Planning Commission, and The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts.
[This story was written by Ms. Frances Hardin, our former colleague and communications specialist with the Africa Center’s public affairs office. Ms. Hardin recently left the Africa Center to take a new position and is serving in Afghanistan.]