Kentucky: Mary Todd Lincoln’s House in Lexington

The exterior of the President Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary Todd Lincoln's house in Lexington, Kentucky.
The exterior of the President Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln’s house in Lexington, Kentucky.

By Wynne Crombie

As the tour guide opened the door for my husband Kent and myself, the first item to come into focus was the original stair banister.

Mary Todd Lincoln's garden at her family home in Lexington, Kentucky.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s garden at her family home in Lexington, Kentucky.

Abraham and Mary Lincoln, during any of their visits here, had surely touched it as they made their way to the second floor. Lincoln visited the home several times and spent nearly a month there in 1847 on his way to Washington, D.C.

I put my hand on the railing and for a fleeting moment thought of those other hands.

Mary Todd Lincoln’s childhood home in Lexington, Kentucky has been open to the public since 1977.   For four years Mary attended boarding school during the week, but returned home on the weekends.

Mary Todd was thirteen years old when the Todds moved here. This is the first house museum in America to honor a First Lady. Born in 1818, Mary lived here from the ages of thirteen to twenty-one.

Seven Years in Lexington

Mary Todd Lincoln's Bible.
Mary Todd Lincoln’s Bible.

After living for seven years with her family in Lexington, Mary moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1839 to live with her sister, Elizabeth Edwards.

It was here that she eventually married a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln in 1842.

Mary had six siblings and nine half-siblings, so the home was a busy place. Her mother died giving birth to her seventh child; her father remarried and Mary gained nine more siblings.

Robert Todd and his second wife Betsy moved to the 14-room structure in 1832.

The ladies' parlor complete with a portrait of the first lady.
The ladies’ parlor complete with a portrait of the first lady.

The 5500 square foot historic home now appears as it did when the Todds inhabited it. The backyard period herb and perennial garden has been carefully reconstructed. The furnishings are designed to chronicle life as it had been in the early 19

The furnishings are designed to chronicle life as it had been in the early 19th century. The style is late Georgian, a prevalent style at the time.

Before Mary’s father, a prominent Lexington businessman bought the house in 1831, the building had been an inn called, “The Sign of the Green Tree”. It was built during the years 1803-6 and operated by William P. Monteer who sold the property to Robert Todd. After the Todds left, the building languished for some years.   In the 1960’s it even served as a warehouse.

Two Parlors

There were two parlors…one for the family and one for guests. We were ushered into the downstairs family parlor. The heavy red silk drapes were closed in memory of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

The chairs and settees were designed for comfort…padded with armrests. The whole room had an aura of social elegance. A rather dark and somber portrait of Mary hangs on the wall. It was painted while she was in the White House.

Mary's Mourning Jacket
Mary’s Mourning Jacket

The house features period furnishings and many of the family’s personal possessions from the Todds as well as the Lincolns. The shawl on the back of a parlor settee was especially intriguing as it had belonged to Mary.  

The original Meissen porcelain collectibles also belonged to her. The fireplace is pivotal. There were ten fireplaces throughout the house. They provided the only source of heat.

At that time, the original cherry wood card table in the middle of the parlor sold for $1.50.  

Atop the table are photographs of Mary’s stepmother, Betsey. Alongside is the family Bible with the date 1817, clearly visible.

In the adjoining dining room, the table is set with fine china. The candelabra the Lincolns used in the White House sits amidst the china and other silver.   The White House candelabra during Civil War days…what dignitaries had eaten by its light?

Mary’s Bedroom

Mary’s bedroom is especially interesting. The original desk displays her Bible and inkwell. In Mary’s day, the numerous desk cubbyholes served as modern-day “filing cabinets.”

Her actual mourning clothes were laid out upon the bed and include an ornate black fan.   It was interesting how even mourning clothes of the day were ornate with pleats and ruffles.

The bathroom’s meager furnishings included towels, a basin and two cupboards. Jugs of water were carried upstairs and poured into the basin. The towels were what we would call, hand towels. No fluffy terrycloth.

The original Meissen porcelain at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington Kentucky.
The original Meissen porcelain at the Mary Todd Lincoln House in Lexington Kentucky.

The original property contained separate slave quarters, (the Todds had five slaves, as Kentucky was a border state) an outdoor kitchen, wash house, smoke house, and stables with a carriage house. They were all dismantled years ago.

A nearby creek supplied the Todds with water. A slave auction site was located only a couple of blocks away. The Todd family resided here until Mr. Todd’s death in an 1849 cholera epidemic.

Due to a discrepancy in his will a public auction was forced resulting in the sale of the house and its entire contents. From this sale a copy of an inventory list was obtained and used in selecting the antiques to place in the house when it was restored.

Mary’s grandfather was one of Lexington’s original settlers.

The house, originally on the outskirts of town, is now in the middle of downtown. Lexington making it very easy for visitors to find.

Mary Todd Lincoln's day bed
Mary Todd Lincoln’s day bed

Restored in the 1970s, by the Kentucky Mansions Preservation Foundation. the historic home now appears as it did when the Todds inhabited it. The Lincoln and Todd families have donated family pieces to the home over the years.

Our guide related that Mary came from an affluent background and was well educated…much more so than her husband. He had had about three years of formal education vs. Mary’s some nine years.

It was pointed out that the some 350 books, from politics to poetry, that lined the Todd’s book shelves were among Lincoln’s favorite things when he visited.

I came away with a glimpse into the Lincoln family as a real family. not just historic figures. From the growing up years, to the White House years, and for Mary…beyond.

Contact:

Mary Todd Lincoln House
578 W. Main St.
Lexington, KY 40507
website
859-233-9999

Closed December   to March   15
Parking is free

$10/ adults     $5/children

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Wynne Crombie

Wynne Crombie

Wynne Crombie and her husband Kent met in Berlin 43 years ago and have been traveling ever since. She has been published in GoNomad.com, Real Travel.com (UK) Dallas Morning News, Travel and Leisure, Christian Science Monitor, Air Force Times, Stars and Stripes and Catholic Digest. She lives in Illinois.