The Lincoln Home is playing to packed crowds this spring. But that is pretty much business as usual for the narrow hallways and stairwells of a 19th-century home that can accommodate tours of only 15 to 17 at a time. It is the volume of tours — attendance of 127,501 January through April is up nearly 42 percent from last year — that is behind a decision to offer evening tour hours for the first time this summer, starting this Memorial Day weekend.
The Lincoln Home is playing to packed crowds this spring. But that is pretty much business as usual for the narrow hallways and stairwells of a 19th-century home that can accommodate tours of only 15 to 17 at a time.
It is the volume of tours — attendance of 127,501 January through April is up nearly 42 percent from last year — that is behind a decision to offer evening tour hours for the first time this summer, starting this Memorial Day weekend.
“Right now, we’re able to accommodate it. But we’re anticipating this increase in visitation will continue with school letting out,” site superintendent James Sanders said of the decision to add two hours to the normal 5 p.m. end of tours.
The new hours are effective Saturday.
Sanders said numbers were expected to increase compared to the first four months of 2008, when gasoline prices closed in on $4 a gallon. In contrast, prices as of Thursday were just under $2.60 at most stations, even after a 30-cent a gallon rise the day before.
Lower gasoline prices and the 200th anniversary celebration of Lincoln’s birth has 2009 attendance off to one of its strongest starts in years.
“We check the parking lots, and we’ve noticed that at least through the winter months, the visitors have primarily been coming from surrounding states,” said Sanders, who added that more distant travelers tend to show up in the summer.
The addition of extra staff brings summertime employment at the park to 65, compared to about 30 in the off-season. The U.S. Park Service limits tours of the Lincoln Home to 15 for a group of adults and 17 if children are in the mix. Tours take about 20 minutes.
Despite the standard caution against touching, taking, leaning or spilling at the start of each tour, getting 15 to 17 people through a more than 150-year-old home in 20 minutes has its moments, said David Bell, a park ranger at the Lincoln Home site since 2006.
“We do have stragglers who want to take pictures. A lot of times, it’s people who want to get that perfect shot,” Bell said.
Bell, who is originally from Pennsylvania, said the Lincoln Home is one of the few national historic sites that start tours every five minutes, adding that there are five or six rooms per tour, depending on the route.
A self-described Civil War buff who majored in history, Bell said tour guides learn from the Lincoln tours as well.
“It’s on-the-job training. I’ve learned a lot about Mr. Lincoln the person, the father and the husband,” Bell said.
“A lot of people just think of him as Lincoln the great man whose face is on Mount Rushmore.”
Bell said most visitors are well behaved and move along the “blue carpet” that marks the tour route — with exceptions.
“We had a schoolchild before I got here who jumped on Mr. Lincoln’s bed. He was escorted out of the house. We had one visitor who went under Mr. Lincoln’s bed, trying to find Lincoln’s aura. We’ve had some strange things,” he said.
“We have kids who like to touch. They want to touch something just because they’ve been told not to touch something. For the most part, people are very respectful of the house. They realize it’s not just any old house.”
The restoration of hours at local historic sites — including the start this week of seven-days-per-week operations at the Lincoln Tomb, the Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and the Old State Capitol — have helped build on attendance gains from Lincoln bicentennial activities, said David Blanchette, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
Attendance was up nearly 25 percent from January through April at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.
Through the first three months of the year, attendance increases ranged from 117 percent at the Old State Capitol to 40 percent at the Lincoln Tomb. April figures were not yet available.
The Dana-Thomas House in Springfield also reopened last month after a shutdown of more than months because of state budget cuts.
Tim Farley, executive director of the Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, said he had just
returned from a tourism meeting in Chicago where discussions were of business off by 12 percent to 20 percent as a result of the recession.
“We’re kind of an anomaly. But we really pushed hard and did more marketing for the bicentennial,” said Farley, who added that room occupancy for the year is up about 7 percent from 2008.
Farley said a series of bicentennial events remain this year, including a major Fourth of July celebration, but that it is important to build on the momentum once the bicentennial excitement has died down.
“We cannot just turn our backs on it and say we’re there,” Farley said.
Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Planning to go?
Starting Saturday and continuing through Labor Day, daily tour hours at the Lincoln Home National Historic Site are 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily, with the last tour beginning at 6:30 p.m. (normal closing time is 5 p.m.).
Free tickets to the home are available at the Visitors Center. The tour includes an orientation film, "Abraham Lincoln: A Journey to Greatness." Tours of the home take about 20 minutes.
Beginning June 12, there will be Lincoln Troubadours street theater performances at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday in the Lincoln neighborhood.
There is a park ranger at 5 p.m. daily at the Dean House in the neighborhood.
Additional information is available from the site, (217) 391-3221 or www.nps.gov/LIHO.
Status of local state historic sites
Dana-Thomas House. Reopened in April; Wednesday-through-Sunday schedule.
Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices. Seven days a week through Sept. 7.
Lincoln’s New Salem, Petersburg. Seven days a week through Sept. 14.
Lincoln Tomb. Seven days a week as of this week through Sept. 7.
Old State Capitol, Springfield: Seven days a week through Sept. 7.
Vachel Lindsay Home, Springfield: Continue Saturday-only schedule, with expanded schedule to announced.
January-April attendance numbers at the Lincoln Home and the Lincoln Presidential Museum, and January-March for other local historic sites and percent increase from 2008.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site: 127,501; up 41.8 percent.
Lincoln Presidential Museum: 125,589; up 24.7 percent.
Lincoln Tomb: 58,377; 40 percent.
Old State Capitol: 25,899; 117.1 percent.
Postville Courthouse: 942; 79.4 percent.
Mount Pulaski Courthouse: 650; 62.5 percent.
Sources: U.S. Park Service and Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices and Dana-Thomas House were not included because the law office was open one day a week and the house was closed until this month).