I have a fascination with Presidential and First Lady history. While Presidential historical sites are well known, exclusively First Lady sites are harder to find (see my list for those open to the public). On our recent road trip, we made a special effort to see the house where Mary Todd Lincoln grew up in downtown Lexington, steps from the famed University of Kentucky.
It’s interesting to note that both Mary Todd Lincoln and her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, were native Kentuckians, born within 90 miles of each other. Mary’s life was tragic from the start, with her mother dying when she was six and her father remarrying soon thereafter. Mary lived in this home from the age of fourteen until she was twenty-one when she moved to Springfield, IL to live with her older sister. It was in Springfield that she met and married Abraham Lincoln, and while they didn’t live in this house, they did visit in 1847. Her father, Robert Todd, and her step-mother, Betsy, lived in the home with their nine children (in addition to the seven he had with Mary’s mother!) until Robert died in the cholera epidemic of 1849.
Her family, like many in the border states, was torn apart by the Civil War. Mary, of course, was married to the leader of the United States and therefore the Union Army while her own brothers and brothers-in-law were fighting for the Confederates.
The home is located on Lexington’s Main Street and opened to the public in 1977, making it the first house museum in the country to honor a First Lady.
The home is well-preserved and decorated with furnishings from the 19th century (some are original to the home). The tour takes you through over a dozen rooms that contain furnishings, decor, portraits, and other items from Mary’s life. I was especially intrigued by the displays about her family life before her marriage after having read Jennifer Chiaverini’s book about her relationship with her sisters (see below for link).
The variety of rooms show the opulence of Todd’s life in her girlhood and in her adult life, from parlors to bedrooms to the extravagant dining room. The tour does discuss slavery and its presence in the household.
Mary’s bedroom upstairs contains several artifacts from her time after the White House, including her time traveling abroad.
I loved the children’s bedroom with its tiny bed, bathtub, and tea set!
One item I found interesting was her younger sister, Emilie’s scrapbook about Abraham Lincoln. Emilie famously lived at the White House for several months in December of 1863 after the death of her Confederate officer husband in the Battle of Chickamauga. She caused quite the scandal for the Lincolns and reflected the divided loyalties of thousands of American families at that time.
Before leaving the home, don’t miss the lovely back garden.
The tour is currently self-guided with placards describing the room and artifacts. There are also docents stationed in several places in case you have any questions or need more information. The furnishings are not behind ropes so be forewarned if you have active children! I recommend touring the home with older elementary (ages 10 and up) or teenagers due to the fragile items on display.
After your tour of the home, be sure to take part in the Lincoln’s Lexington walking tour, including a tour built specifically for children! Also the home provides an extensive list of children’s activities here.
While driving through Lexington or visiting the University of Kentucky, the Mary Todd Lincoln house makes a great historical stop. Plus with it being one of the few historical sites dedicated to a First Lady, it’s a must-see for any Presidential history enthusiast!
- Cost: $15/adult; $6/youth (ages 6-17); free/children 5 and under
- Recommended for: ages 10 and up
- Tour time: 30-45 minutes
- Gift shop located onsite
- Transportation: Located in walkable downtown Lexington; plenty of onsite parking (behind house)
- Dining options: Downtown Lexington has lots of options. There is a cute deli (Stella’s) and a local pizza place (Pies and Pints) nearby.
- Nearby hotels: I like staying at historic hotels and the nearby 21c Hotel building dates to the early 1900s. There are several hotels in the downtown district – check out the Visit Lex website.
- Nearby attractions: Explorium (Science Museum), University of Kentucky, Ashland (Henry Clay estate), and Lexington Cemetery (where Mary’s father and Henry Clay are buried)
Books to Read:
All links are Amazon affiliate links.
- 14 and up:
- 10 and up:
- 6 and up: