Skylar Fein, a New Orleans installation artist, sits in front of the two-story replica of the Springfield, Ill., general store building of Joshua Fry Speed.
Updated: February 13, 2014 6:03AM
NEW ORLEANS — When a 28-year-old country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln moved to Springfield, Ill., on April 15, 1837, he arrived without lodging or many friends.
He found both in Joshua Fry Speed, a general store owner around Lincoln’s age who offered Lincoln temporary accommodations on the second floor, and rest in his bed. For four years at that location, the men formed an intimate bond that scholars have examined and re-examined as a window into the private world of the 16th U.S. president and favorite Illinois son.
The house in downtown Springfield is long gone, but a New Orleans installation artist has made it possible to step backward in time for a revisiting. His project, a two-story replica of the Speed building titled “The Lincoln Bedroom,” allows visitors to walk up the back stairs, enter a bedroom dressed to the period, sit on the Speed-Lincoln bed, stuffed in straw, and contemplate “what if” before descending the front stairs, where they can sit on the front porch and linger in a past time.
“For me, it’s the most seductive kind of story. It’s the sort of story that appeals to people who love stories because it’s not so cut and dried,” says Skylar Fein, 45. “What I’m doing is allowing people to look upon the bed and be drawn into the story as I was. I’m not here to tell people what to think, but I am offering them a chance to think.”
Questions about the Speed-Lincoln relationship reached a crescendo in 2005 with the book “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln,” by psychologist C.A. Tripp, a former Kinsey Institute researcher on sex known for his pioneering writings on homosexuality. The book was largely assessed as flawed, but it opened a dialogue about masculinity of the time period and the sexual life of the past president.
However, James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln Collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, says that while the question is a valid one, its validity is a stretch. The reason, he says, is an understanding of the cultural politics of the era, when men routinely slept in the same bed together, and were confident in sharing their feelings with one another, more than they did with women.
After all, Cornelius says, Illinois was still a new frontier in 1830: a population 80 percent male and one that heavily skewed young. “The romanticism has a lot to do with national expansion, this land of boundless prospects, and young men teeming out to the frontier.”
Women, on the other hand, were less visible, which suggested they were fragile and “expected to be protected legally and emotionally by their husbands.” In Speed and Lincoln’s letters, which continued into Lincoln’s White House years and are available to read on the museum’s online archive, both men expressed deep personal thoughts about marriage, politics and abolition, as well as business because Lincoln also served as Speed’s attorney.
They are “the best, and most revealing personal letters Lincoln ever wrote to anyone,” Cornelius says.
Virginia Speed, a distant relative of Joshua, gave Fein her family blessing for the project after bringing him up to Louisville, Ky., where he received a tour of Farmington, the Speed estate, where Lincoln also spent six weeks in 1841, that is today a museum. Virginia Speed is an avid art collector and artist who is also connected to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.
She says she was “enchanted” by Fein’s installation of the Speed building in Springfield because it forces people to think about the nature in which men shared their feelings and intellectual pursuits.
“There was no homoerotic relationship” between Lincoln and Speed, but she says they shared “an intimacy that in our day and age isn’t available because they had time to be together.
“They had real time. They had an amazing amount of discussion about things that were really deeper. They had interest in women, but also interest in poetry and all kinds of art and culture that we don’t allow ourselves to go into these days,” she says.
Fein’s Speed home cost $35,000 to build; it stands 12 feet wide and 22 feet high, and is made of all new lumber, except for the front porch posts that are constructed of driftwood found on the banks of the Mississippi River. Besides the many historic elements used to dress the bedroom, a sign tells viewers the two men shared the bed, “not out of necessity, but out of choice.”
“The Lincoln Bedroom” is exhibiting at C24 Gallery in New York through Feb. 22. From there, Fein hopes it will find a home elsewhere, either at a museum or with a private collector, particularly in Illinois.
“All the money I had in the world, I spent on this,” Fein says.
Cornelius says activists who want to explore the gay life of past presidents should look no further than James Buchanan, who was the only single president in U.S. history, and about whom there is clearly more evidence about his sexuality. He says people instead focus on Lincoln, just as politicians and countless others over decades embrace Lincoln: His noble political and personal achievements in office, and in life.
“Lincoln as a person is out there to endorse our cause no matter what. Because everyone wants to be associated with Lincoln. When, in fact, there’s pretty good evidence Buchanan was a homosexual. But no one talks about it because James Buchanan was a racist and a failure as a president and, well, you don’t want to associate yourself with that,” Cornelius says.
Lincoln is an especially sensitive subject in Illinois, where his name and likeness is omnipresent, appearing everywhere, from city statuary to the state license plates.
Andrew McFarland, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, says Lincoln continues to transfix people in Illinois because not only is he a native son, he is the rare figure who unites both Chicagoans and residents downstate, making him politically attractive.
“People like to point to Lincoln for his overall spiritual character, which makes him sort of like St. Francis,” McFarland says. “But he’s an American who had these great leadership qualities, which makes him very special.”