Mount Vernon: George Washington’s Grand Mansion

Mount Vernon

A trip to Virginia is incomplete without visiting the iconic estate of Mount Vernon, home to the first President of America. Immerse yourself and discover the life and legacy of George Washington along with the people who lived and worked in the mansion during the Colonial period.

Mount Vernon was the beloved home of America’s First President, George Washington. Located 13 miles south of Washington, DC, the historic estate is situated on the banks of the Potomac River in Fairfax County, Virginia, near Alexandria. This beautiful riverside estate of Washington includes his iconic mansion overlooking the tranquil Potomac River and green woods, outbuildings, gardens, tombs, and a fully functional blacksmith shop and farm.

How did George Washington acquire Mount Vernon?

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Mount Vernon was originally called Little Hunting Creek, owned by John Washington. He eventually passed down the estate to his son, Lawrence Washington, who then gives it to his daughter, Mildred Washington.  This iconic 18th Century estate, which started as a farmhouse, was soon purchased by Augustine Washington in 1726, Mildred’s brother. He then builds the main central part of the plantation. Augustine passes the estate to his eldest son, Lawrence Washington, the half- brother of George. He renames the estate as ‘Mount Vernon’ after the famed English naval officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. After the death of Lawrence, George became the sole proprietor of the mansion in 1759.

The Main Mansion

At the time of George’s inheritance during the 1750s, the 3,000 square foot mansion was an ordinary one-and-a-half-story structure with four rooms, two fireplaces set at each end of the house with gable windows and a single entrance.

George Washington soon renovates and extends the estate.  The mansion is then opened to a two-and-a-half-story 11,028 square foot stately home with twenty-one rooms. An east entrance was also added along with the Piazza, which forms one of the mansion’s distinctive architectural features. He even adds a cupola to the roof and window pediments. These features were quite rare at private houses during that time.

Cupola and window pediments

The walls of the mansion are made of wood in Neoclassical Georgian architectural style, although it looks like stone for a casual observer. This was achieved through the technique of rustication.

George oversaw almost every detail,  always making sure the estate reflected his distinguished status. It was a conspicuous display, showing his prominence in colonial society. He made sure that the estate represented the identifying features of the Federalist architecture and also added more acres of land even when he was away fighting the revolution and serving as the President of the United States.

In the wake of the mid-19th century’s revival craze, Mount Vernon becomes an important symbol of the nation, and his countrymen start to idealize the past in George’s 21-room home, as well as to evoke contemporary political and social ideals.

A quick peek inside the rooms of the Mansion

George Washington’s former estate of Mount Vernon has been transformed into a museum fill with a plethora of artifacts, documents, and ephemera once belonging to the founding fathers of America.

Let’s take a quick scroll in the mansion and get a glimpse of the aesthetically pleasing rooms.

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George Washington added the New Room. Being the most massive and grandest room in Mount Vernon, it was a multi-purpose room, and various activities ranging from receiving guests to formal dinners were carried out here. The place is packed with paintings and objects that give us an impression of a virtual art gallery.

Historians and artisans have restored and reserved almost everything in the room just as it had appeared 180 years ago.

The ceiling is a striking feature in the room, and it reflects the Republic style derived from the ideals of classical roman simplicity in contrast to monarchial embellishment. It shows the simplicity and elegance of the Republican universe.

Images of war heroes can be seen on the walls, which gives a sentimental idea to the visitors about the tragedies of the war. He had hung his favorite paintings on the walls, twenty-one in all.

The striking green walls and the natural items in the room represents the colonial style of taste.

 

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The Central Passage at the back of the new room with four rooms attached to it was not only a hallway, but it also served as an entertaining space.

 

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The Little Palour has initially been a bedroom, but George renovated it into a music room for his stepchildren and step-grandchildren. The Harpsichord was imported from London in 1793.

 

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The Front Parlor served as the main entertainment space before the New Room was added. Later, it was converted into a Family room where the members could read books and play.

 

The key to the infamous Bastille Prison

Another thing that attracts our attention is the key, which is kept in a case in the middle of the two doorways at the foot of the stairs. It was a gift from Marquis de Lafayette, his fellow revolutionary in France. The key once unlocked the infamous Bastille Prison, whose destruction was considered to open the doors for the French Revolution.

 

The Dinning Room

Rooms to the left of the Key consisted of a Guest Bedroom for family friends, political or business associates. The last room was George’s original dining room.

 

The Study

On the opposite, there is George’s study room that mirrors the New Room. Here, he managed the estate business.

 

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The Piazza, which forms the building’s trademark, was a wide veranda set up on the east front of the mansion overlooking the Potomac River. No wonder the President always longed to go to his beloved home.

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You get to see the same view, which inspired George Washington while he overlooked the Piazza with his fellow friends like Thomas Jefferson and others.

The Piazza offered beautiful views below the mansion and brought a cool breeze to chill under the Virginian summers. It also served as an entertaining space for guests in the afternoon shade.

 

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A passage of stairs leads up to the Second floor of six rooms, which were used as bedrooms. George and Martha Washington used the most massive bedroom. George died of a throat infection in this room on December 14, 1799. The room was also considered to be Martha’s sanctuary.

Family Tomb

The Family Tomb

The Washington family crypt is located downhill the mansion, on the banks of Potomac River. George knew this site would not be tenable for long. Therefore he stipulated in his will that a new tomb be constructed below his orchard.

After his death, George Washington’s body was placed in the Old family’s vault. But in 1831, the remains of the old family vault were moved to the current resting place of a Brick tomb. We see George and Martha Washington’s body lying next to each other in a marble sarcophagus.

Memorial of Slaves

Slave Memorial

The Slave Memorial is located approximately 50 yards Southwest of George and Martha Washington’s Tomb, on a bluff above the Potomac River.

This sacred ground was used as a cemetery for those enslaved and a few free slaves who worked in the mansion.

Although George Washington owned slaves, he was getting disturbed with the very idea of the ancient institution of slavery, and his attitude towards slavery softened. At the time of his death, there were 317 enslaved people at his Mount Vernon Estate. George stated in his will that all the slaves under his ownership were to be freed.

Outbuildings

There are individual buildings located outside the mansion.

Slave Quarters

 

The slave quarters were built to accommodate the African- American slaves who worked in the estate farms and mansion. Ninety people were housed here, including women and children. George Washington provided them with enough food and clothes.

The Blacksmith shop is in full operation today, and regular demonstration of colonial smelting techniques are shown to the visitors.

 

The Spinning House of Mount Vernon made clothes from wool and cotton grew on the estate.

Farms and Gardens

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George Washington was a visionary man, and he loved farming. He introduced many ideas of the Industrial Revolution to the colonial system of agriculture. Scrolling through the farms, we get to see a glimpse of the plantation life in George’s estate. Five separate farms were in operation, along with various units. No large scale crops were grown, but perishable foods were produced for the people living in the mansion.

The farms were restored carefully by studying the reports and writings of Washington to his gardener.

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The greenhouse bordered the upper garden, located to the north. George was passionate about flowers and all sorts of plants. He derived vast pleasures from a growing a variety of flowers from around the world. The lower garden was located on the south, bordered on the east by additional rooms like the storehouse, clerk’s quarter, and smokehouse. George himself designed these gardens.  Around 596 trees were planted in the estate under his direction.

A replica of his animal barn is set up in the estate, and various animals, including breeds like Ossabaw Island Hogs, Hog Island sheep, and Red Devon cattle, continue to strive here. The barn is also home to farm animals like horses, mules, and oxen. It is said that George loved animals, and we are invited to bring our furry friend to visit the animal farm.

 

Gristmill and Distillery

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Wheat flour was the critical product in George’s plantation. He soon installed the automated- flour milling system of Oliver Evans, which greatly influenced his gristmill, making it more productive and efficient. He even rented it to other farmers in the area.

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The distillery was built later than the Gristmill. He started to grow rye in place of tobacco. By the time of his retirement from the Presidency, the estate’s distillery was housing around 11,000 whiskey.

George Washington soon becomes the first man in the United States to have the biggest distillery and finest Gristmill.

The Distillery and the Gristmill are, in fact, fully functional even to this day, and visitors are invited to see the operation.

 

Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center

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It was opened by Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 2006. The building derives its name from Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, who donated 24 million dollars for setting up the Museum and Education Center.

The galleries and theatres exhibit a fascinating array of around 700 artifacts from Mount Vernon during Washington’s lifetime, and it also offers an immersive experience into the life of George Washington and the people who lived on the mansion and the historical events of Washington through interactive displays, action- movies and short films.

The museum gives exclusive insights to the paintings, prints, sculpture, furniture, ceramics, metals, clothing, and personal accessories of the Washingtons. There are also replicas of the period pieces similar to original Mount Vernon objects.

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Inside the museum, we also get a glimpse of the life-size figure of George Washington and even the most prized artifact of Mount Vernon- a full set of dentures ( George’s false teeth) that were made from ivory and human teeth. There are also exhibits of Washington’s survey equipment and weapons.

 

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Before you depart from Mount Vernon, grab some food and unique souvenirs from Mount Vernon Inn.

Mount Vernon Ladies Association

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A century ago, this historic site almost stopped breathing. The mansion was in grave danger of getting lost forever. It was at this juncture, a group of extraordinary women came to save the beloved home of the First President of the United States.

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association was founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham. By 1858, the association raised 200,000 dollars for the purchase of the mansion and two acres of land.

Mount Vernon Ladies Association has been the sole preserver of George Washington’s home for the past 150 years. It is also the first National Historic Preservation Organization and is the oldest Women’s Patriotic Society in the United States.

They started to renovate Mount Vernon and restored it, just as it had appeared during Washington’s time.

Their notion was to preserve, restore, and present the mansion just as Washington knew it. They set the pace of historic preservation in the United States, and their pioneering efforts in the field of conservation have served an example for many.

 

Although George Washington was born 288 years ago, his legacy continues. His Mount Vernon Estate continues to bustle centuries later. It has become the most visited historic site in the United States.

Mount Vernon is a living reminder of immortality made visible. Today, millions of Americans and tourists from other countries travel to the historic American landmark to experience the life of the founding father of the Country.

For over 200 years, Americans have reproduced George Washington’s Mount Vernon Plantation house more often than any other historical building. In 1960, the estate was designated as one of the National Historic Landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information on Mount Vernon, click here to visit the official website.

If you have been to Mount Vernon and has some exciting experience to share with us, feel free to leave a comment.

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