When Sally Field was preparing for her role as Mary Todd Lincoln in the recent Lincoln biopic, the dynamic actress insisted on two trips to the historic Lexington home that bears Mrs. Lincoln's name --one tour of the house to capture the essence of the woman whom she was to portray, and one visit for her CBS Sunday Morning interview about the film.
Now, I've probably driven past the Mary Todd Lincoln house a hundred times in my life. The truth is, when you spend a lot of years studying and working in Downtown Lexington, you don't always give a whole lot of thought to the historic buildings. After a while, they all run together. The Hunt-Morgan House. Ashland. The Mary Todd Lincoln House. They all carry the names of Lexingtonians of eras past. They reflect the architecture and fashions of their era. But, when you've used Gratz Park for outdoor undergrad classes or quick runs with the dogs and the Thomas Morgan House is a place where you performed your alumna duty of serving punch at sorority rush parties, you haven't always taken the time to read the historical markers or undertake the tours. While I always knew that the Mary Todd Lincoln House was the home of our nation's Sixteenth First Lady, I've never taken time to visit it. It's just part of the downtown landscape, like Old Morrison or the 5/3 Building.
My friend and fellow "obsessive Kentuckian", Sarah Stewart Holland, wrote an essay here on HerKentucky about the moment when, while reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, she first saw Lincoln as an empathetic and very human man rather than as a historically exalted leader. As I read Sarah's piece, I immediately thought of all the press surrounding Ms. Field's visits to Lexington. I did a little research about the Mary Todd Lincoln House and realized that, perhaps, Ms. Field was onto something. Maybe the home where Mrs. Lincoln spent her teen years is a key to her character.
The house located at 578 West Main, an elegant two-story 14-room brick home, was purchased by the Todds in 1832. The fashionable address -- at the time almost suburban -- reflected the family's growing prominence. Robert Todd, a businessman and politician, was the president of a local bank. Mary, the fourth of seven children, lived the life of a privileged southern belle. She attending boarding school during the week, and traveled home on the weekends. When Mr. Todd remarried, Mary disagreed with her stepmother and step-siblings. At 21, she was sent to Springfield, Illinois to live with her married sister Elizabeth. In Springfield, Mary won the affections of two promising young lawyers -- Stephen Douglas and his political rival Abraham Lincoln. Although Mary was known for her dramatic personality and disarming mood swings, her marriage to the penniless Lincoln shocked everyone back home in Lexington.
The Mary Todd Lincoln House, sitting serenely in the shadow of Rupp Arena, boasts a decidedly colorful past. Originally built as an inn, it was later converted to a private residence. It even served as the "bawdy house" where Lexington's most famous madam, Belle Brezing, first practiced her trade. In the 1970s, the house was restored (the first site restored to honor a First Lady) with many original antiques belonging to the Lincoln and Todd families. Its many -- sometimes shady -- incarnations seem a fitting tribute to a woman whose tumultuous personal life was marked with political victories and unimaginable family tragedies. The home's series of reinventions seems also to embody the very spirit of Downtown Lexington -- constantly evolving and rebuilding, with an eye toward the future and a deep respect for the city's history.