Mount Vernon – Remaking The Home Of George Washington

THERE have been two grand divisions in the life of Mount Vernon since the passing of the man who made it and made it famous. For sixty years it declined and decayed. Cedar and scrub pine possessed the neglected fields. The unregenerate honey-suckle caressed and then strangled everything its tentacles touched. Drives and paths lost their graveled surface under matted wire grass. The unprotected palings of the garden fences rotted to the core, literally lost their heart, and tottered. Roof and column succumbed to the corrosion of time and the elements; the dampened plaster lost its grasp and fell; and paradoxically the heavy feet and meddling fingers of the thousands of pilgrims were hastening the disintegration of the shrine to which they came with worshipful patriotism. Once flames raised their tongues and licked out one of the buildings, mercifully detached. Only by a seeming miracle has the frail old mansion, whose timber is tinder, been preserved from the annihilation by fire.

Then came the patriotic women who took up the work government had repudiated, and the mantle of a new life spread over the place. For another period of almost sixty years restoration has been recreating the home of Washington as he established and held it and loved it.

The rooms of the mansion, the various outbuildings, and the special phases of work about the estate were apportioned among the Vice-Regents. Each had her share of the whole work of restoration which became her obligation and for which she gathered the funds.

The efforts of the pioneer Regents had overmatched their first need, and when Mount Vernon was paid for there remained a balance of above twenty thousand dollars. This enabled them to begin repairs which would forestall disintegration, and to buy the steamer which would furnish further funds. At the end of the war’ which had deprived them of this revenue they fought for an indemnity, and a cautious Congress allowed them seven thousand dollars and directed its expenditure under army engineers. The sum went into a new wharf and into the digging of a channel for a larger boat.

For the first twenty years after the war revenue was slight and the improvements were maintained in a large measure by contributions from the private purses of the ladies of the Association or by funds raised by their efforts. Indeed, until 1886, there was a desperate struggle to preserve rather than to restore. At the end of that period the mansion and outbuildings were placed beyond the probability of destructive decay, and order was restored in the environing grounds.

The summer house on the brow of the hill to the south of the mansion was rebuilt in 1886 with contributions from the school children of Louisiana. From this point Washington watched the schooners load and unload at his wharf, and here hung a bell which regulated the hours of labor on the estate. The deep cellar underneath was intended by the General for an ice-house, but it was abandoned for another in a more convenient locality north of the mansion.

From the time that the bodies of Washington and other members of his family were removed in 1831 the old tomb was abandoned and allowed to decay. This spot so precious in association was reclaimed in 1887, by contributions from the State of Michigan, and restored as nearly as possible to the condition in which Wash­ington put it when he built it in pious fulfillment of his brother Lawrence’s will. The capstone, inscribed “Washington Family,” had been removed and was lost sight of for many years, It was discovered at Wood-lawn Mansion, worn by service as a carriage block, and was replaced in its ancient position.

At the same time the smothered bluff before the mansion was cleared, the rotted palings of the deer-park stockade were removed, and an iron fence replaced them and the enclosure was again stocked with deer, by the generosity of the sons of Mrs. Robert Cambell of Missouri.

The amusement speculator was for many years a continual menace to Mount Vernon. The rising ground on the north side of the mansion became the basis of a plan, in anticipation of the coming of the electric-car service to the estate, to establish a public resort there. In 1887 Jay Gould of New York visited the national shrine and heard of this scheme. His sense of propriety as well as his sense of proportion grasped how essential this piece of land was to the ideal of those preserving Washington’s home, and he bought thirty-three and a half protective acres and added them to the Association’s holdings. Another gift of two acres on the west river front came from Christian Heurich of Washington City, in 1893, when an unhealthy swamp near the wharf was con­verted into a fertile meadow. This brought the landed holdings of the Association up to two hundred and thirty-seven and a half acres.

The Masons and other patriotic citizens of Texas pro­vided the means to erect the North Lodge Gates when, in 189e, the electric railway established its terminus here. They are wholly new, but in spirit and architect­ural detail repeat bits from the General’s own designs for other buildings on his estate. Another new feature, unknown there before, is the sea wall, extending along the river front, provided as “a necessary protection to the wooded shore against the wave wash during storms.” It was built in the nineties and was the gift, as was the wharf-house erected in 1891, of Mrs. Phoebe A. Hearst of California. The old wharf of pilings after generations of repairs was replaced in 1913 by the present permanent structure of cement.

When Washington completed his comprehensive scheme of landscape gardening after the Revolution he used brick walls with liberality and with decided effect. They were of three kinds : the garden walls, the screen walls, and the ha-ha walls. The first was a formal part of the plan of his buildings and grounds. They have withstood the wear of all the intervening years since. Even the decorative palings of the fences they support are in large part original.

There is a different story to tell of the screen and ha-ha walls. The former were wholly utilitarian and masked the buildings north and south of the mansion from the lawn. They were in ruins and had in part disappeared when the restoration was undertaken in 1910. The ha-ha walls, so intimately a part of the grounds as to be invisible from the mansion, had almost disappeared. The north ha-ha wall was replaced in 1896, the south in 1910, and the west in 1915. In these works it was thought wise not to depend on the skill of modern brickmakers to imitate the effect of a century of wear and weather, so the bricks were bought and brought from the ruins of Thatcher Thornton’s splendid old colonial man­sion, Society Hill, at the head of Upper Machodac Creek, an inlet on the Westmoreland shore of the Potomac, and they contributed harmoniously to the mellow tones of the original brick. The walls at Mount Vernon are re-produced today exactly as Washington planned and left them, except the boundary wall at the North Lodge Gate, which, though harmonious in design, is newly made necessary by conditions which the General did not anticipate.

Washington declared the old tomb to be ” improperly situated.” The reasons thereof were the springs which, on an extensive stratum on the Virginia side of the Potomac, render the adjoining banks liable to slides. Mount Vernon Mansion and the old tomb stand on a height which has been peculiarly susceptible to danger from this source. Minor slides occurred at intervals. To forestall further danger the hill was, in 1904, tunnelled by Mr. Archer’s suggestion and under his direction, and is now drained of twenty thousand gallons of water a day, an engineering feat as unique as it was successful in its preservative effect.

In another way nature acts in time continually to change the conditions created and intended by Wash­ington. His plans for trees and vistas were precise as they were extensive. He left a mass of information in his diary and letters by which to recreate and preserve the arboreal environment he prepared. These have been followed in discounting the changing aspects of growth, but this problem was less difficult than to restore the destructive influences of storm, insects, and decay. Washington built and planted with an eye to the vistas with which his estate naturally abounds. The weed trees which grew up and obscured these outlooks have been given the consideration which they merit, for the custodians of Mount Vernon subscribe to the landscape artist’s axiom that a view is more valuable than a tree. The custom of planting memorial trees near the tomb has been discontinued.

The mansion was reshingled in 1913, for the first time in fifty-two years. This was a great event. The business of the repairs was approached as usual with an eye to preserving the identity of every detail. The old shingles were duplicated in North Carolina cypress from Lake Waccamaw, and hewed to the old samples. Tarpaulins were made to fit the roof, and their safe anchorage planned against high winds. As small a space as possible was opened at one time. Every night, and during the day at any sign of “weather,” the tarpaulins were battened down tight. When the house was recovered a stain reproduced the age and original tones of the old roof.

In prying loose the shingles along the line where the portico’s roof reaches up on to the mansion Mr. Dodge discovered that a whole section of shingles had been left in place underneath when the portico was restored in 1860, a steeper pitch being given its roof at that time by extending it back on to the roof of the mansion to the sills of the dormer windows. Among these hidden shingles there proved to be valiant survivors of the course laid on when the mansion was first built. The elements had etched evidence on their sides which showed that they had been turned and twice exposed. Some of the original shingles were used when the man­sion was enlarged and re-roofed during the Revolution. It is authentic later tradition that the roof had not been touched since the old General’s death until 1860. At that time the old shingles were left before the east dormer windows on that portion of the roof over which the portico roof extended. Hence it is an interesting fact that among the shingles on Mount Vernon today there are some which were placed there when the original villa was built.

Another result of Mr. Dodge’s research was the discovery of the quarry from which were cut the stone flaggings in the great portico pavement. The originals there have thinned nearly to the vanishing point. Frost destroyed the edging course of the flags first laid there by Lund Washington when the portico was erected during the Revolution, and the General included the repaving of his portico among his repairs after the war. After many disappointments the sandstone blocks which he placed there were matched two years ago in the ancient quarries whence he derived the original on the estate of Lord Lonsdale, at St. Bees Head, on the west coast of England near Whitehaven. A supply has been ordered in excess of that needed to repave the portico, and the reserve stock will be available should the source of these paving stones become exhausted.

The interior of the mansion has known radical repair only in two instances. It is true that the underpinnings have been made more nearly equal to the increased strain of the growing procession of visitors and that minor visible discrepancies have been corrected with finished skill, but the West Parlor and the Banquet Hall have demanded and received the more ambitious treatment. The harmonious condition of the panelling in the former room was the work of repair in 1879. The ceiling in this room remained intact as late as 1878 when it gave signs of loosening the hold it had kept for a full century. The design was drawn to scale, each of the twenty-eight hundred leaves radiating about the great circle were removed, a new ceiling laid on, and the decorations were reproduced in the original material.

Foresight was less acute in the case of the ceiling in the Banquet Hall. It cracked and pieces fell in 1880. At that time it was merely patched. But the accident was repeated in 1884, and the year following saw the entire ceiling made new in detail identical with the original, the devices of husbandry therein being repeated in the decorative effects of the capitals over the doors.

No fire, for either light or heat, is permitted in the mansion. Visitors are admitted only during the hours of daylight. At five o’clock in summer and at four o’clock in winter the house is closed. During the winter months heat is of course necessary for the comfort of visitors. It is furnished by hot water brought from boilers detached and distant from the big house and is introduced in such an adroit manner as to make the means practically invisible. The fireplaces continue to give out heat as in the olden time, but from the unseen coils in the gratings below the fire baskets. The hall or passage is heated by pipes concealed under the perforated supports of the stair treads. To these and other ingenious extremes does the care of Washington’s home extend in the effort to preserve not merely its very existence, but its spirit as well, from modern device.

There is but one recorded instance that the mansion has been threatened by fire. In his diary Washington wrote on January 5, 1788: “About Eight o’clock in the evening we were alarmed, and the house a good deal endangered by the soot of one of the Chimneys taking fire & burning furiously, discharging great flakes of fire on the Roof but happily by having aid at hand and proper exertion no damage ensued.

Shortly after the death of Bushrod Washington fire destroyed the greenhouse and “Quarters” on the north side of the formal gardens, and they were restored between 1894 and 1896.* A complete fire department was installed in 1892. Fire drills are frequent and the various apparatus are subject to frequent inspection. In unison with the intention to disturb none of the colonial harmonies, the fire-fighting forces remain out of sight. A steam engine is kept at some distance from the buildings, but the main batteries of hose and the chemical engine are close at hand in a sunken well in the centre of the circle before the great front door. As an added precaution smoking is not allowed on the estate. Watchmen and guards patrol the big house and all the grounds by night as well as by day.

If, in the last emergency, Mount Vernon were destroyed, its replica would rise in its place. Safely stored in fireproof vaults in the National Capital are architect­ural drawings of every building, with every conceivable detail of structure and decoration. With these are a great number of photographs of every aspect, inside and out, of the big house and its nest of buildings.

It has been seen how General Washington’s personal belongings and the contents of his home were dispersed, first by his will, which removed only a few objects from Mount Vernon, then by Mrs. Washington’s gifts, and later her will, by which her grand-children came into possession of most of the furnishings of value, and finally after her death by the sale, in 1802, when the General’s kinsmen bought many souvenirs of his home life. In 1848 Bushrod Washington’s heirs offered for sale the bulk of their grand-uncle’s library. When it appeared probable that this library would find an English purchaser and be removed from the country, a group of patriotic Americans arose in Massachusetts and paid a price which insured the sale to them. The books were presented to the Boston Atheneum, where nearly all the original Mount Vernon library may be found today.

The treasures which Martha Washington gave her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis of Arling­ton, and which adorned that mansion for over half a century, had many vicissitudes on the outbreak of the war. When Arlington was taken by the Federal troops some of the Washington relies had been removed to Ravensworth,to the northwest in Fairfax County; others, left in the house, were removed to the Capital, where they were placed on exhibition. The national government after the war restored these articles to Mr. Custis’ descendants, who have made some of the most valued contributions to the reassembling of the original furnishings of the historic mansion.

Many other Mount Vernon treasures, in particular those which passed from Mrs. Washington through her granddaughter, Nellie Custis Lewis, to the Lewis family, and valued Washington documents and letters in the hands of the Washington colateral descendants of the General, were offered at public sales in Philadel­phia in the early nineties of the last century. It is from the purchasers at these sales that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association obtained by purchase, gift, and loan others of the relics which are again in their original positions.

The articles already mentioned as left in the house when the Washington family sold and gave possession of it were the nucleus of the later collection. Among them the most valuable treasure is the Houdon bust of Washington, made in the house and never removed therefrom. Perhaps because it is clay instead of marble, it seems to have excited no cupidity during the early distributions.

Of highest historic interest is the bed on which Washington died, which is in its original position in his bed-room over the library. Here, too, is the mahogany shaving-stand presented to the General by the first French Minister to this country; his military trunk quaintly curved and studded with brass nails, and a chair which stood in the room the night of his death.

The “tambour desk” and chair which were be­queathed to Dr. Craik are again in the library, with his silver inkstand, snuffers and tray; and here is the Washington family Bible containing the record of George Washington’s birth and christening. A few books of the original library are back in place by the sides of many volumes which merely duplicate the originals.

Four of the General’s swords are home again, and after an absence of over a century the old crystal and wrought-iron lantern which Admiral] Vernon sent Lawrence Washington hangs once more in the hall. Nearby is the veritable deed given by Lord Culpepper to Nicholas Spencer and John Washington for the tract on which Mount Vernon was later built.

The one complete group in the mansion is that asso­ciated with the Vaughan mantel in the Banquet Hall. Here are the identical firedogs presented by LaFayette, the original rosewood pedestals, clock, candlesticks, vases, and wall lamps. Elsewhere in this room are the model of the Bastille which the Polish Gentleman found in the portico exposed to the elements and the vandal fingers of playful children; a mirror plateau imported by Washington to adorn his dining table; a painting of the Great Falls of the Potomac; his gold watch, knee and shoe buckles, silver toilet articles, silver spectacles, needle book used at Valley Forge, spoons, punch bowl, champagne and other glasses, and additional souvenirs not only of the master of Mount Vernon but of its mistress and of Nellie Custis. In an adjoining parlor is the harpsichord which Washington imported from abroad for Nellie and over which her stern grandmother kept her so many hours at tearful practice.

In the dining-room are the sideboard, a sixteen-gallon wine chest and four wine decanters, a pair of pitchers, and the portrait of David Rittenhouse, which were all there in the General’s day. Elsewhere are tables and chairs which Washington placed in the house and some of the identical pictures. But where the originals either of pictures or furniture could not be found or, being found, could not be secured, duplicates have as far as possible been installed, awaiting the proper means or the generous impulses which will restore the identical articles which Washington knew and used in his home.

The whole aspect of the house is simple without severity and elegant without ostentation, representa­tive of the taste, dignity, and eminence of the great man whose environment has been reconstructed. The same is true of the exterior of the mansion and of the grounds. There is perhaps a trimness to the walks and a smartness to the cropped lawns and an absence of littered corners which even the old General could not have wrung from his shiftless slave labor. The young trees he planted and watched are now veteran giants, many with the deep scars of time and storms bound up in sustaining cement. But if the General were to return he would find surprisingly few changes, in the spirit of the place least of all.

The ideal sought by the zealous patriots who have the custody of Washington’s home is to maintain the environment which he created in the eighteenth century. So the restoration of Mount Vernon may be said to progress backward. But the cycle of fashion has played a paradoxical trick on the old place by making the new fashions in domestic landscape and archi­tecture those of the days when old Mount Vernon was new.

`Though it is the tomb of Washington, the place is instinct with life. The house is kept with the nice domestic simplicity that suggests the personal pres­ence of the master and mistress. The solemnity of death is only sensed when one stands uncovered be­neath the open sky among the trees before the reli­quary of all that is mortal of the immortal Washington, or not less poignantly when upon the broad Potomac one hears the unfailing requiem of the bell of every passing vessel.

There is an order in the United States Navy by which, when ships of the service pass Mount Vernon between sunrise and sunset, a full guard and band is paraded, the bell is tolled, the colors are dropped to half-mast, the bugle sounds taps, the guard presents arms, and officers and men on deck stand at attention and salute as the ship passes the hallowed spot.

This is but a symbol of the emotion which Mount Vernon raises in the heart of every American, commanding the attention and the salute of all lovers of liberty. It is not merely the home of Washington, living and dead, but it focusses our ideals, and our glory as a people, in our one national shrine.