This estate of George Washington, the first president of the United States, is where he died on December 14, 1799, and where he and his wife Martha are buried. It was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858, then restored and renovated. A National Historic Landmark, it consists of the twenty-room, two-and-a-half-story mansion and numerous outbuildings, including original slave quarters, situated on five hundred acres.
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union
Mount Vernon, VA 22121
ph.: (703) 780-2000
Five years before he died in 1799, George Washington wrote to a friend extolling the beauties of Mount Vernon, yet if he returned to his estate today he would be astounded at its appearance. Although he would recognize the mansion, the outbuildings, the pathways, and even some of the landscaping, the most striking change to him would be the improvements visible everywhere, the very ones he had sought in his own lifetime and might have achieved had he lived longer than sixty-seven years.
The noxious marsh that lay a half mile from Mount Vernon, to which Washington attributed the cause of the spring and summer fevers in the area, is gone, drained and turned into a nursery for the flower and vegetable gardens of Mount Vernon; the embankment on which the mansion is situated, and which threatened to crumble under the force of the Potomac River, has been strengthened by army engineers more than once; the grasses, meadows, and fields surrounding the estate are immaculately kept, not as they appeared when George Washington lived at Mount Vernon but undoubtedly as he would have dreamed them to be. In his lifetime, George Washington was known far and wide as an excellent farmer who employed the most progressive methods of his day and whose sprawling, beautiful eight thousand-acre estate reflected ceaseless care and attention.
George Washington was not born at Mount Vernon. Not until he was three and one-half years old, in 1735, did his father Augustine bring him and his older half brother Lawrence to Little Hunting Creek Plantation, the future Mount Vernon. He lived there until he was seven. What the estate looked like then is a matter of conjecture, except that it was much smaller (at most sixteen hundred acres) than the Mount Vernon where George Washington died. There is a record of George Washington’s great-grandfather, John Washington, who in 1674 purchased the property that would eventually become Mount Vernon. John Washington was not a wealthy man; he purchased his property, consisting of five thousand acres, jointly with a friend and fellow colonist, Nicholas Spencer. The farmland was excellent and, when properly tended, yielded rich crops. By 1690, both John Washington and Nicholas Spencer were dead, and their property was divided among their descendants. In time, George Washington’s father came to inherit several properties, one of which was the future Mount Vernon.
Why the whole family left Little Hunting Creek Plantation when George was seven, after only four years’ residence, has not been established. If George Washington’s great-grandfather John had been a struggling colonist who had left England to seek his fortune, he certainly, at his death, bequeathed a considerable estate to his descendants.
George Washington’s father, Augustine, died in 1743, leaving Lawrence, the older half brother, to act as surrogate father to George, who was eleven. By then Lawrence was married and living at Little Hunting Creek, which he had decided to rename Mount Vernon to honor the memory of his former commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon. The death of this older half brother in 1752 at age thirty-four, probably of the same tuberculosis that had killed their father, was a deep personal loss for the young George Washington. When Lawrence’s infant daughter Sarah died two years later, Lawrence’s widow sold Mount Vernon to George. It was 1754, and he was a tall, handsome, very well-liked young man of twenty-two. Even at that young age, he was the commanding officer of the Virginia militia, had little time to spend at Mount Vernon, and, perhaps because he was still a bachelor, had little incentive to stay put.
Not until after his marriage to the wealthiest heiress in Virginia, Martha Dandridge Custis, when he was twenty-six, did he begin to turn serious attention to improvements at Mount Vernon. He longed to “retire” there permanently (become a gentleman farmer) after his marriage, but the French and Indian War intervened. Until the early 1760’s, Washington was away often; after the war ended, he quit the militia and returned to Mount Vernon with relief, although public affairs frequently called him away.
In 1775, he accepted the command of the Continental army, and the war between the colonies and Great Britain meant that he would not return to Mount Vernon to live until 1783. A few years later, he was elected president, and then reelected, which necessitated living in the temporary capitals of New York and Philadelphia. It is little wonder that Washington, who tried in these years to return to Mount Vernon at every opportunity, was delighted when Congress approved the site of the new “federal city” just sixteen miles from his scenic estate. Not until the late 1780’s, barely a decade before his death in 1799, did Mount Vernon assume the appearance that it has at present. This fact is known from the detailed records Washington kept of his estate. As a young man he had been trained as a surveyor, and his plans of Mount Vernon have survived the ravages of time. They are marvels of detail, indicating where every single tree had been planted, where every single path of his estate lay, the exact location of all the buildings, and the sizes of the fields and meadows. How the interiors of his mansion and other buildings appeared, and what they contained, can be ascertained in part from his voluminous correspondence as well as from his diaries.
It is known that when he became owner of Mount Vernon in 1754, it hardly resembled today’s imposing plantation. The estate consisted at most of a couple thousand acres, and the family resided on the first floor of the house, which contained four small rooms around a central hall, and perhaps a room or two upstairs (there was a half floor above the first floor). Mount Vernon technically consisted of five farms. The mansion itself and the outbuildings surrounding it stood on five hundred acres. Compared to most people living in the colonies in the late eighteenth century, the Washingtons lived in a roomy house on a grand scale.
George Washington had a decided flair for interior design and architecture. He supervised the construction of the beautiful columned piazza at the back of the mansion, which extended the full length of the house. There his innumerable visitors could recline on comfortable chairs and enjoy the gorgeous setting. (A full set of these chairs has been reconstructed based on the one chair that survived the decades of neglect after Washington’s death.) The flagstones of the piazza came from a quarry in England, and when they became thoroughly worn out in the early twentieth century, they were replaced by exact replicas made from the same stone from the same English quarry.
Washington kept up with the latest trends in interior design and decorating. He loved wallpaper and ordered most of it from England. A tiny scrap of the original green wallpaper in the dining room was used as a guide for its reproduction. The size of the mansion nearly doubled under his ownership, from one and one-half to two and one-half floors. The large dining room was entirely of his design. The ceiling and the mantel have won high praise for their workmanship and intricate design (the mantel was a gift from an English admirer). Another beautiful room was the west parlor, the center of family life and social gatherings. The walls were painted in an expensive Prussian blue, and above the mantel hung family portraits and the family coat of arms.
In 1775, the year Washington became commander in chief of the Continental Army, his library was under construction. Washington was not known to be bookish, but a library was a common feature among gentlemen farmers, and his library was where Washington engaged in his correspondence and planning. His desk stood there as well as his globe, one of the very few original objects that remained in the house when it became a museum just prior to the Civil War.
Upon his retirement from the presidency in 1797, Washington lived in Mount Vernon for another two and one-half years. He died in the upstairs bedroom in 1799, of a throat infection caught after spending time outdoors in cold and snowy December weather, planning an improvement on his estate. At his death, his estate had been enlarged from two thousand to eight thousand acres. His mansion was nearly twice the size that it had been when he acquired Mount Vernon in 1754; in addition, there were now a dozen outbuildings. Ever the planner and designer, he had selected a site for his and his wife’s tombs, at the bottom of his property, along the Potomac; their tomb is usually the first site visited by tourists who come to Mount Vernon by boat.
Washington left a thriving, prosperous estate when he died. He was a professional farmer and kept up with the latest advances in the science of agriculture, such as the use of fertilizers, crop rotation, and even experimental crops. After his death, Mount Vernon entered into a slow and sad decline. Martha Washington survived her husband by two years. It was she who began the habit, continued by subsequent heirs to Mount Vernon, of giving away objects that had once belonged to Washington, or to the estate, to visiting friends or relatives. Almost all of George Washington’s and the house’s belongings and furnishings disappeared in this way. Their recovery took decades and will never be complete.
Fifty years after George Washington’s death, Mount Vernon had been altered shockingly. The estate itself was considerably smaller, having been subdivided into five farms after Washington’s death. The land no longer yielded the abundant crops that it had produced under George Washington’s careful management; the estate’s income had dwindled to the point where even the most necessary repairs could not be made. When fire destroyed some of the outbuildings, not only were they unrestored but their gutted remains also were left standing, visible to passengers traveling past the estate by boat. One of these, a wealthy planter’s wife from South Carolina, was saddened at the desecration of Mount Vernon. What this woman did not know was that the owner, John Augustine Washington, Jr., had tried to interest both Congress and the Virginia legislature in purchasing the estate for $200,000, but both turned a deaf ear to his appeal. Meanwhile, southern hospitality demanded of him that he feed and entertain the many visitors who came to Mount Vernon to pay their respects, and this was a serious drain on his finances.
When the woman, Mrs. Robert Cunningham, returned home, she described the plight of the house and property to her invalid daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham. The younger woman was galvanized into action. It was then 1853, and within ten years the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, which she founded, had rescued Mount Vernon for posterity.
She was roundly criticized by men and women alike for her unladylike conduct–organizing fund-raisers, hiring a lawyer, and chartering an all-women’s organization that would actually restore and operate an important historic site. In spring 1858, the owner of Mount Vernon finally sold the estate to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for $200,000. He and his wife stayed on until George Washington’s birthday in 1860. He left behind, on behalf of the future restoration of the house and grounds, the only personal possessions of George Washington still left at Mount Vernon: his globe, the key to the Bastille sent him by General Lafayette, and an original clay bust of George Washington himself.
Ann Cunningham and her assistant, Sarah Tracy, moved into the mansion. This would be a temporary arrangement until the basic restoration of the house and grounds was complete. As it turned out, the U.S. Civil War broke out before much could be accomplished. Ann Cunningham returned to her home in South Carolina, but her assistant stayed on in the hope that her presence in the house would spare it from the worst ravages of the war. Apparently it did, although the estate was situated between battle lines of both armies and shelling in the area was heavy at times. Even during the war, however, Mount Vernon had visitors. Mary Lincoln sailed to Mount Vernon with a group of friends, among the first visitors to pay admission to tour the house and grounds. In 1866, Ann Cunningham returned to take up where she had left off. With Mount Vernon’s restoration under way, she retired from the regency of the association in 1873 and died a year later.
Although the repair of the buildings and grounds of Mount Vernon were well in hand by then, the recovery and restoration of the interior had barely begun. The effort to reacquire the many original pieces from Washington’s day spanned decades. In the first decade of Mount Vernon’s restoration, many individuals came forward, claiming to possess an object that had once belonged to Washington. These objects were often difficult to authenticate. Gradually, major items were returned to Mount Vernon, such as the harpsichord that had belonged to Martha Washington’s granddaughter Nellie Custis, the sundial that stands in front of the house, the lantern that had hung in the main hallway, and the bed in which George Washington died. Some of the refurbishing was based on guesswork, from letters and other documents that have survived. A dining room table of mahogany was constructed based on eyewitness descriptions. There were no clues whatsoever about the particular wallpaper that had hung in some of the rooms, so more general research into eighteenth century wallpaper led to the creation of a hand-printed reproduction.
Although the aim of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been the authentic restoration and preservation of Mount Vernon, ultimately a few concessions had to be made to modernity. As early as 1878, a burglar alarm was installed. Later, Thomas Edison designed an electric power system for the house and grounds, although the mansion rarely is lit by electricity. In 1924, Henry Ford donated a fire-fighting system.
Today, only pleasure boats cruise by Mount Vernon. Instead of glimpsing a sad wreckage, they glide by a beautiful eighteenth century estate, one of the finest specimens of that era’s architecture and furnishings.
Alden, John Richard. George Washington: A Biography. Reprint. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996. A well-regarded, well-written biography of George Washington. Griswold, Mac. Washington’s Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999. This pictorial work discusses the character and contributions of Washington through gardening. Johnson, Gerald W. Mount Vernon: The Story of a Shrine. New York: Random House, 1952. A fascinating account of the decline of Mount Vernon after Washington’s death. It is also the story of Ann Pamela Cunningham, the woman who saved Mount Vernon for posterity. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Mount Vernon: A Handbook. Rev. ed. Mount Vernon, Va.: Author, 1985. Contains a detailed, heavily illustrated account of Mount Vernon’s history and describes the evolution of the estate to the present, including the gardens and outbuildings. Smith, Richard Norton. Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Both this biography and the one by Alden (above) approach Mount Vernon less from the standpoint of the evolution of an estate than as a reflection of the man who lived and died there.