Ever been to Mount Vernon? I have, twice, and it’s a fascinating place. Like more than a few other historically significant sites, though, George Washington’s home came very close to fading into oblivion, only to be saved by conscientious souls. In this case the benefactors were, and are, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, who have chronicled their efforts in Mount Vernon: The Story of A Shrine. The book starts out a wee bit dry, but it’s a quick read that packs quite a punch.
Mount Vernon’s road to restoration all started during a steamboat trip up the Potomac in 1853. It’s a longstanding tradition for watercraft to ring their bells as they pass Mount Vernon, and as the steamboat’s bell tolled, one of its women passengers, Louisa Bird Cunningham, looked up the hill at Mount Vernon. She was shocked to see weeds growing rampant around the Mansion, a sagging roof, peeling paint, and a collapsed pillar on the piazza that was held up by scatling.
Mrs. Cunningham was so appalled that she immediately wrote to her daughter, Ann Pamela, and told her what she had seen, and in turn, her daughter began a campaign of letter-writing and organizing that would culminate in the formation of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
At the time, George Washington’s great-great-grandnephew, John Augustine Washington III owned Mount Vernon, and it wasn’t his fault the place fell into disrepair. The farm was very underproductive by the 1850s, and ever since Uncle George’s death in 1799, the property saw a steady stream of visitors wanting to see where the Father of America lived and died. Being a proper Southern gentleman, Washington received everyone who came to his door, but his generous hospitality drained his finances. His first idea was to sell to the state of Virginia, but they weren’t interested.
Ann Pamela Cunningham was more than happy to fill in the void, and after some convincing from Cunningham and Washington’s wife, Washington agreed to sell Mount Vernon for $250,000, or about eight million in today’s money. He couldn’t have made a better bargain, although he was skeptical of women handling large sums of money. A semi-invalid from South Carolina, Cunningham possessed tremendous finesse and moxie. Although she was a woman of means, her single status granted her very little clout, so she always signed her letters, “A Southern Matron.”
Cunningham’s letters were reprinted in several different papers across the country, but state governments weren’t interested in Mount Vernon. However, the project gained traction when respected orator Edward Everett lent his services and his purse. Yes, as in the guy who spoke for two hours at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. In a stroke of genius, Cunningham also recruited vice-regents in each state who would campaign and collect money, if not make their own donations to the project. One of them, Anna Ogden Ritchie, was even an actress, a daring choice for that time. In all, it took roughly five years to raise the money, and MVLA purchased the estate in 1858.
While the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association was able to purchase the property relatively easily, the Civil War put any major restoration efforts on hold for several years. Cunningham briefly lived at the Mansion, along with Sarah Tracy, the latter of whom all but had to run blockades to get supplies to the Mansion. Tracy also dogged the commanding officers of all the local regiments into leaving Mount Vernon alone. No one was allowed to come on the property in uniform, and no explosives were to be fired anywhere vaguely near it. It’s because of Sarah Tracy that the property survived at all.
Once the war was over, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association began their restoration work in earnest. Besides refurbishing and restoring the Mansion, there was the matter of tracking down original objects from Washington’s time. At the time the MVLA bought the property, there were a few artifacts left in the Mansion, such as one surviving chair from the piazza, but most of them had been scattered to the figurative four winds.
The book doesn’t go into exhaustive detail about what specifically was tracked down or how this was accomplished, but my guess is that they started with the considerable receipts and ledgers in Mount Vernon’s archive and went on from there.
They took the Occam’s Razor approach of determination: If an object was in the Mansion during George Washington’s time, then it should go back there if possible. Anything from the post-George era was either not brought back to Mount Vernon or put in the site’s new museum. Also possibly relegated to the museum were objects people wouldn’t necessarily leave lying around their house, such as George’s false teeth or silverware, which are not only valuable but easy to snatch. The quest to find more original objects continues to this day.
There were two items about which there were never any questions. The first was Nelly Custis’s beloved harpsichord, and the other was the bed in which Washington died. Both carefully-preserved artifacts stayed in the family or close to it, and were lent before being given to the MVLA permanently.
Mount Vernon’s extensive ledgers also aided in the restoration of the house itself, because not only was the MVLA able to locate the original manufacturers or something very close, but they had the names of the original paint colors. Plus computer imaging technologies are able to give clues as to how the walls looked over the years, such as in this recent restoration of the central passageway.
To be sure, electricity and other modern safety accoutrements have been installed on the property as well, including a burglar alarm, the first of which was paid for by one Mrs. Phoebe Hearst.
Above all, the mission of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association is to stand guard over Mount Vernon and ensure George Washington’s much-loved home stays as Washington knew it. As Ann Pamela Cunningham said in her 1875 farewell address:
Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge. See to it that you keep it the home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress! Those who go to the Home in which he lived and died wish to see in what he lived and died! Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change! Upon you rests this duty.
Mount Vernon: The Story Of A Shrine is a fascinating book that isn’t really over, as the mission of the Mount Vernon Ladies’s Association isn’t stopping anytime soon.
Got a special announcement coming up tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
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