a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Lincoln slept here, well maybe

The so-called Lincoln bed on display at a new Sen. John Heinz History Center exhibit on the former president.

PITTSBURGH – The bed where President Lincoln rested his head in the Monongahela House hotel was surely comfortable, but whether or not it survived has become an awkward story in Pittsburgh.

A fancy bed now featured in a special Lincoln exhibit at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh made local headlines in 2004, when it was discovered in a secret room in a storage warehouse. The bed was quickly identified in news accounts as having been taken from the celebrated Lincoln Room at the hotel before the building was demolished.

Then, the dedicated staff at the history center’s museum did some digging and found enough evidence to cast doubt on the validity of that claim.

Researchers found an 1889 newspaper report about a devastating fire at the hotel that once stood at 1 Smithfield St. Firefighters flooded the entire building to douse the blaze, rendering “every destructible article ruined,” the newspaper reported without any mention of the Lincoln bed.

That president did spend Feb. 14-15, 1861, in the hotel while en route to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration. Soldiers need to use their bayonets to clear a path for him through the nearly 4,000 people who packed the streets outside the hotel upon his arrival about 9 p.m. during a pouring rain, according to “The Lincoln Train in Pennsylvania,” by Bradley R. Hoch. Once inside, Lincoln stood on a chair and said, “that if all the people were in favor of the Union, it can certainly be in no great danger – it will be preserved,” Hoch noted in his book.

Lincoln gave another speech the following day from a hotel balcony before continuing his journey. And then, nearly every hotel guest in the years that followed requested to sleep in the hotel bed used by the president.

The original Monongahela House was leveled in Pittsburgh’s Great Fire of 1845, only to be rebuilt in a more-luxurious style two years later. The hotel then became a favorite among actors, presidents and such writers as Mark Twain before it was torn down in the 1930s.

An earlier article in the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph stated the Lincoln bed was going to be preserved by the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania. The society since has been absorbed by the Heinz museum, whose staff found yet more information that makes it difficult to even confirm that report.

It seems former Castle Shannon Borough Councilman George Dietrich claimed he crafted a hammer and gavel from the same Lincoln bed before he donated those instruments to his council president in November 1937.

Even so, three blueprints – including one of the Lincoln Room at the hotel – accompanied the bed, shown in the exhibit, when Allegheny County workers found it bug eaten and under burlap in a maintenance shed at South Park. A headline followed the find in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette declaring: “Bed found in shed is the one used by Abe Lincoln here.”

The museum since has only been able to confirm the bed in the shed was made from walnut and poplar, woods that were commonly used for furniture during Lincoln’s lifetime. It’s also typical of the Renaissance Revival style that was fashionable when Lincoln visited the city.

Regardless, it looks presidential.

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