Reflections on a tour of Mount Vernon Plantation, home of George Washington.
I shall not bore you with the history that is available at www.mountvernon.org. On a wintery Saturday, I paid a visit to Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington. I have visited before, and the entrance always bothered me slightly. I always wanted to arrive like a guest would have in 1789. I wanted to ride up to the front lawn and turn towards the mansion, then get out after going halfway around the circle in front. During my visit, I had the time to take a tour of the mansion, but not the grounds tour. I did wonder down to the barn though.
I walked up the path to the mansion, past the slave quarters and the greenhouse that Washington kept. The slave quarters are a complete lie. Half of them are now a gift shop. Slavery was harsh and the ladies who run the place refuse to acknowledge that fact.
The greenhouse was surprisingly green for a winter day. George even had an in-floor heating system. The design was borrowed from a Roman bathhouse. After looking at that, I continued on to the mansion and looked at his ice shed. He would have ice cut and shipped to him for the winter months, so he could chill things through the summer, though usually all the ice would be gone by June. I poked my head in the overseer's quarters and arrived at the mansion. My first question to the tour guide was about the exterior of the mansion. Washington used sand mixed with whitewash to get the gritty faux-stone look of the mansion. Also, the pigmented paints of the time were quite expensive, and a way of showing wealth. Blue paint was the most extravagant.
One enters the mansion through an outdoors walkway connecting the servant's quarters with the mansion. The tour takes people through the large dining room, through the parlor (with an out of place 19th century pianoforte) and then into the central passage. The neoclassical theme never seems to fit in with Mount Vernon. The estate is too rustic too support the illusion, whereas the sweeping gardens and grounds of Monticello do it quite nicely. It would be interesting to compare the two estates at some point. Jefferson's choice of brick for his house seems more natural. The central hall of Mount Vernon has wonderful wooden paneling. On display is the key to the Bastille. It was a gift to Washington from the French during his time in Paris.
Upstairs, on the second and third floors are all the bedrooms. They were really pretty boring. The beds always seemed very small to me, but people were shorter then. The guide said that the famous Cupola was added in 1778, and was a favorite place of children in the household. After going back downstairs, we all stopped at George's study and admired his globe, fairly accurate for the age. The poles were all wrong though. Shackleton Had yet to go exploring. Washington's book collection was interesting, but then again, I like old books. The tour excited the mansion through the kitchens, where we saw the rather primitive way in which good meals were prepared. Everyone went over to stare down the well for some reason. The view from the front lawn was cool. The Potomac river and the Maryland shore look better from a distance, when one can't see the trash.
I continued down the path to the water, visiting the carriage house and some more of the outbuildings. The Necessary is an object of perverse fascination. Everyone liked looking at a glorified outhouse for some reason. I pity the slave who had to clean it, but at least Washington was aware of the concept of sanitation. I also made a detour to the vault of the Washington family, which has been defaced by tourists over the years. Washington is not buried there though. One of the docents told me that Washington trained all of his own horses. He rode in the English style, as all military men did, so they can control their horses well.
Down by the waterfront, they have an interesting exhibit about crop rotation and the innovations that Washington made in farming. He used slave labor, but this was not emphasized that much in the displays. The barn was an interesting structure. It was built a couple of years ago based on the original design by George Washington. It was also built with traditional methods, which is why it took several years to build. He wanted a 16 sided structure built so that cattle could walk around inside and de-chaff the grain. This always seemed somewhat unsanitary to me, as cattle have no bowel control. At any rate, the barn was amazing. The joinery work was very well done, and they didn't cheat by using metal studs or pins. Washington borrowed construction methods from the Low Countries. However, they used a modern foundation. Steel pipes support the structure, instead of the traditional stone.
Though Grist Mill (The local mill 300 years ago) is now open, I didn't have time to visit. The mill is being restored piece by piece, so I might go in a few years, when they are closer to being done. My visit to the estate was interesting, if a bit cold and wet. George Washington also never chopped down a cherry tree, never threw a silver dollar across the Potomac (they didn't exist then), and wore bone, not wood teeth. Overall, it was an educational visit, though I would probably find the Steven F. Udvar Hazy Center a bit more interesting.