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AFP - Officials on Wednesday to unveiled a freshly renovated Ford's Theatre, site of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, in commemoration of the bicentennial of the former US president's birth.
After 18 months and 25 million dollars of renovation, the theatre emerged with a revamped stage, comfortable new seats and a spacious lobby showcasing the coat Lincoln wore when he was shot at the site in 1865.
The Ford's Theatre Museum will open this spring after completing its own makeover.
"Today, we celebrate the reopening of Ford's Theatre, a place that memorializes the death of Abraham Lincoln while also celebrating his tremendous life and legacy," said Paul Tetreault, the theatre's director.
"These changes will allow visitors to experience a deeper connection to the greatest of presidents, to beyond the night of the assassination, and learn how his ideals and vision still impact us today."
Later Tuesday, President Barack Obama will join screen and stage stars to attend a specially commissioned biographical play about Lincoln, "The Heavens are Hung in Black," at the theatre and a gala dinner at the National Portrait Gallery.
Acting legend Sydney Poitier and filmmaker George Lucas are both to receive an honorary Lincoln Medal at the star-studded evening, with appearances expected by Emmy Award-winning actor Kelsey Grammer, stage and screen actor James Earl Jones and CBS television anchor Katie Couric.
Obama repeatedly has invoked the memory and rhetoric of his political hero "Honest Abe," the president who abolished slavery.
"This is a great moment in history. Who would have ever predicted when we started this project to celebrate the life of Lincoln ... that one of the first persons to walk onto the stage in the renovated theatre would be the first African-American president?" Ford's Theatre Society Chairman Wayne Reynolds told AFP.
"What a long way we've come as a country."
Obama, who launched his campaign in Lincoln's hometown of Springfield, Illinois, was sworn in to office on Lincoln's Bible. Just three days before his inauguration, he rode into Washington from Philadelphia on a pre-inaugural slow train that recalled the 16th president's ride on the same route heading to his inauguration.
"Like Lincoln, President Obama faces the challenges of war and economic turmoil here at home and around the world. But also he is also calling for unity. He is also calling for change," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters.
Obama, like Lincoln, was a lawyer and former state lawmaker in Illinois. He will travel to Springfield to attend a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth on Thursday.
It was on the evening of April 14, 1865 that John Wilkes Both stepped into Lincoln's box at Ford's Theatre and fatally shot the president. The theatre was closed for years after Lincoln's assassination, only reopening nearly a century later in 1968.
Since then, over 30 million visitors from the United States and around the world have visited the site, Tetreault said. The theatre receives nearly one million visitors each year.
The renovation, the most extensive in the theatre's history, was part of a campaign in excess of 50 million dollars for a Lincoln-themed campus that includes renovations of the museum and the Petersen House, which hosts Lincoln's death bed across the street from the theatre.
It will also house the new Center for Education and Leadership, set to open in 2010.
The theatre's reopening accompanies a flurry of exhibitions opening in the nation's capital for Lincoln's bicentennial.
"There really is a great connection between the city of Washington, DC and President Lincoln," Washington Mayor Adrian Fenty said at the theatre's ribbon-cutting ceremony.