Iles House receives Lincoln’s Courting Couch for one year
The horsehair-covered sofa long known in central Illinois as Lincoln’s Courting Couch has been loaned for the 2014 season to the Iles House, 628 S. Seventh St. (corner of Seventh and Cook streets). It is on display in the front hall.
The circa 1835 couch in the Empire style comes from the collection of the Springfield Art Association of Edwards Place, at 700 N. Fourth St. The SAA and Edwards Place had the couch restored in Chicago early this year, with help from private supporters, and thanks to the discovery that the original 180-year-old horsehair upholstery lay underneath the fabric from a re-covering job done a century ago. The couch’s hollow arms also secretly held some original fabric.
Erika Holst, curator of Edwards Place, said, “We are so pleased that our friends at Iles House could help us keep this historic couch on display all year while we undergo a major restoration.” Edwards Place, Iles House and four other historic sites in the city are part of Springfield Heritage Sites, a consortium that cooperates on programming and the appreciation of local and state history. The SAA buildings remain open while Edwards Place is being restored.
Jim Patton, Iles House vice-president for furnishings, said, “The Board of Directors and volunteers of the Elijah Iles House are delighted that the Springfield Art Association / Edwards Place have entrusted us with the display and safekeeping of this most historic piece of furniture. As a friend of Elijah Iles, Abraham Lincoln would be pleased, I am sure.”
Edwards Place and Iles House have a friendly rivalry to the claim of “oldest house in Springfield.” The former was begun in brick in 1833 north of the city limits, then much altered and added to over the years on its original lot. The latter was built of wood in 1837 and has been moved twice, coming to rest in 1998 a block from its original lot, and is now restored to its original condition and period furnishings.
Abraham Lincoln certainly visited both homes, and Mary Lincoln probably visited both. The two of them courted on this couch when it belonged to Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, Ninian Wirt Edwards. It was in the room when the couple was married in 1842, and it stood silently downstairs when Mary Lincoln died in that same house in 1882.
Edwards Place on N. Fourth Street was the “rural” mansion of Ninian’s brother, Benjamin, and his wife, Sarah, who were Democrats. Both Lincoln and Stephen Douglas visited there, as did Mary Lincoln to her relatives-by-marriage, though political differences may have limited her time spent there. The Republicans Ninian and Elizabeth lived on the southern edge of town, about 1.5 miles from their Democratic kin, near what is today the intersection of S. Second Street and Jackson, on what would now be the lawn of the present State Capitol. The couch was in that “southern” Edwards home from about 1835 until 1888. That house was razed in 1917. An old letter displayed with the couch explains how it passed from Ninian’s family to Benjamin’s former home after 1888.
Meanwhile, Elijah Iles, one of the four founders of Springfield in the 1820s, built his modest Greek-revival home at S. Sixth Street and Cook, in the neighborhood once known as Aristocracy Hill. In 1843 the home was purchased from Elijah and Malinda Iles by Robert and Clara Irwin. As vice president of the Springfield Marine Bank, Irwin became Lincoln’s personal banker and took charge of his finances after the Lincolns moved to Washington. Card parties for local men including Lincoln were a regular feature of the Irwins’ back parlor. Some nights, it is said, wives also stopped in.
Iles House moved in 1910 to make way for the First Christian Church (still standing). Without water pipes or overhead electrical lines, houses were much easier to move in those days. Its “home field” became 1825 S. Fifth St., near Ash Street, from 1910 until 1998, when local conservationists lifted and trucked it to is present location at Seventh and Cook, one block from the First Christian Church. Painstaking restoration enabled it to be reopened as a museum in 2005. Its lower level now also houses the Farrell and Ann Gay Museum of Springfield History, in which is currently displayed an exhibit on Camp Butler.
How does Camp Butler figure into all of this, in the grand circle of local history connections? That Civil War camp northeast of town for mustering Union soldiers and detaining Confederate prisoners was named in 1861 for state treasurer William Butler. Bachelor A. Lincoln had boarded with Butler and his wife, Elizabeth, in the years when the two well-to-do Edwards families, as well as Elijah Iles, had their own finer homes. Lincoln had served as a soldier in the Black Hawk War of 1832 under Major Iles. In 1863 Treasurer Butler helped bail Ninian Edwards out of some political trouble in Springfield while Lincoln sat in the White House wondering why his trusted brother-in-law seemed to be drifting toward the Democratic party of his brother, Benjamin. Benjamin was the brother who for 42 years was the law partner of Mary Lincoln’s cousin, John Todd Stuart, Lincoln’s first boss – who had introduced Abraham and Mary, which led, in circular fashion, to the fabled courting couch.
James Cornelius works at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, and is a board member of the Elijah Iles House Foundation. Richard Herndon, also a board member, retired in 2011 as Business and IT Manager in Pharmacology at SIU School of Medicine.