Mount Vernon: Where preservation in America was born

The Shot I Missed

Mount Vernon, December 2010

It’s little secret that I adore George Washington; it thus follows that Mount Vernon is my absolute favourite place to visit. What many don’t know about, however, is the history of the preservation—rescue, really—of General Washington’s beloved home and farm. The Washington Post is running a historic home contest, and as part of it, they published a wonderful short articleon how historic preservation in the US was born at the very home of the man we call the father of our country.

It was a chance sighting of the first president’s home from a ship that started it all. Louisa Bird was sailing down the Potomac River and happened to catch a glimpse of Mount Vernon. Washington had died many years before, and his relatives were struggling to maintain the grand estate. Bird was horrified by the peeling paint and overgrown weeds. The portico was in such disrepair that it was propped up by a sailing mast.

Bird wrote to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham that Mount Vernon’s decay was “a blot on our country.” Inspired by her mother, Cunningham set out to save it. She founded an organization dedicated to preserving Washington’s home — the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — launched a nationwide campaign to raise money and enlisted the help of former Massachusetts senator Edward Everett, a Washington aficionado.

The General’s great-grandnephew, John Augustine Washington III, had tried selling Mount Vernon to the federal government, then the state of Virginia, both of which refused him. He himself refused those trying to buy the property at first, but relented when offered a sizable portion of the $200,000 price. Making the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association particularly special is the fact that it was entirely made up of women. Since it was the mid-1800s, this was unique indeed; according to Dennis Pogue, the vice president of preservation at Mount Vernon, it was probably one of the only organizations of any sort run exclusively by women.

Mount Vernon, 2009. Copyright Jen Baker and Liberty Images

Mount Vernon, September 2009
This is probably one of my favourite photos that I’ve ever taken (if I say so myself).

It is suggested that the ladies occupied themselves with preserving Mount Vernon and, later, other places, because they’d no other options to choose from and because the home was considered a woman’s domain at that time; I have to say, though, having read nearly every book about Washington ever written, that the ladies of the generations close to the Revolution had always been appreciative of the General as a protector of themselves and their daughters. They met him at crossings to sing his praises, bringing their children and infants to see the man who had, against all odds, defeated the strongest army on earth. (He was also a remarkably handsome man—in uniform!—and a superb dancer as well; no wonder the women loved him!)

Between that love and respect for Washington and learning that his home—a man’s home is is castle, after all—was in great disrepair, I wonder if perhaps they saw saving Mount Vernon as a way to honour and respect Washington—while also preserving his memory for their grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and all the coming generations.

…saving Washington’s home became more than just something to occupy their time. They set a standard for the historic preservation movement. “There were a lot of other groups in the years following that saw [preserving Mount Vernon] as a model,” Pogue said.

…Cunningham summed up the group’s mission in her farewell speech in 1874. In powerful, if somewhat Victorian language, she commanded the ladies, “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 to see in what he lived and died. Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change.”


Mount Vernon’s famed portico, 2009

Certainly go check out the rest of the article. The Ladies’ Association has done a fine job of preserving and maintaining Mount Vernon for all the world to see; it’s simultaneously fascinating and relaxing to visit. The Museum on-site is truly wonderfully done—and don’t skip a meal at the Mount Vernon Inn if you can manage, especially during the wintertime (I highly recommend the “Martha’s Remedy”, by the way). And if you’ve never been to Mount Vernon…Why?! I can tell you from experience that fall is a grand time to visit (but then, so are winter and summer…and spring…).

We had gone yearly for a while, but sadly, with our move to a new state last year, we missed a year. Darn! Of course, I’m sure the Mount Vernon staff are most happy to not have to escort me, ever so politely (ah, the South!), off the grounds at closing in 2011, as they have to do so every single time I visit. They really are charming about it, though, despite what must be a


Inside the 16-sided threshing barn General Washington invented. Horses ran in a circle inside the barn treading out the wheat; the grain fell through 1.5″ gaps in the floor to the first floor, where it was gathered.

somewhat wild glint in my eye. If this is a bit scattered, it’s my own fault—not just the DayQuil haze, but the fact that I love George Washington and his graceful Mount Vernon so very much I don’t even know where to begin, much less end, so I’ll put a sock in it now.

Of course, Virginia is, in my estimation, one of the most beautiful states in the Union, and I could/want to live there. Heck, I could probably write a book about touring Virginia’s historic homes and places, complete (of course!) with photos.

Hm. Maybe after I’m done with Route 66…Say, do you think Mount Vernon would hire me as its official photographer?

Have you ever visited Mount Vernon? Any special memories?

By the way, if you’d like to keep up with some of the archaeology still going on at Mount Vernon, the Mount Vernon Mystery Midden blog is a fun read. It’s amazing what they’re still finding!


One thought on “Mount Vernon: Where preservation in America was born

  1. We were lucky to visit Virginia in 2000 when my husband was invited to mark papers. We stayed a week in Charlottesville, near the University (loved that city). As it was pretty close to Monticello, I went twice it was so interesting. We hope to go back some day as we got engaged in Irvington at ‘The Hope & Glory’, and would love to mark a special anniversary there. If we do, I’ll be sure to put Mount Vernon on our travel plans. Great photo’s Jen.

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