Posted on July 6, 2018
“I am once more seated under my own Vine and fig tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days—which in the ordinary course of things (being in my Sixty sixth year) cannot be many—in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the Earth.”
—George Washington, letter to James Anderson, April 7, 1787
George Washington served as commander-in-chief on the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, the president of the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the U.S. Constitution, and America’s first president. To his own generation and to those that followed, he is the father of our country—“the hero, the patriot, the sage of America…the man on whom in time of danger, every eye turned and all hopes were placed.”
But Washington’s greatness comes not only from his political and military achievements. After the end of the Revolutionary War, the general was favored to be the leader of the new nation. Washington, however, refused this potential dictatorship and, like the Roman statesman Cinncinatus, returned to his farm. After later serving two terms as the nation’s first president, he again relinquished his power, retiring to his beloved home at Mount Vernon and setting a precedent followed by every president until 1940 and later signed into law as the 22nd Amendment.
Though Washington’s great grandfather purchased the original property, the majority of the 3000-acre plot was acquired by his father Augustine Washington when George was three. The property sits nestled on the bank at the Potomac River a few miles south of Alexandria, Virginia in Fairfax County. George acquired the property on lease in 1754, and he began improving the house originally built by his father. By the time the general died, he had more than doubled both the size of the original 3000-acre property and the square footage of the home.
The late 1750s marked the beginning of Washington’s first ambitious expansion. Due to the estate’s self-sufficient community, which included carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, planters, and a whiskey distillery, little work needed to be outsourced. The original home General Washington inherited commanded views of the Potomac and was comprised of a central passage connecting four rooms and a garret. He began his improvements by lifting the roof to include a full second story and a third-story garret. The initial layout was then reconfigured to accommodate the added staircase and new bedrooms and storage rooms. Originally framed in wood, it was then finished in plaster that was scored to imitate the look of cut stone.
From 1774 to 1775, a two-story expansion was added to the south side of the mansion with a study, master bedroom, and dressing room for George and Martha. Further additions were begun in 1776, but Washington’s plans were interrupted by the Continental Congress and the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. While Washington led the Continental Army in battle, the mansion was supervised by a distant cousin named Lund Washington. Though the general returned from the war in 1783, his work on the house was not completed until 1787.
Through these additions, Washington aimed to imitate the style of Andrea Palladio. This is evident in the house’s simple, classical forms, but the original house’s plan prevented him from ever achieving the symmetry of the most famous Palladian villas. Washington also took inspiration from other classical European examples. He used colonnades to both attach the main house to two lower secondary buildings and to form Mansion Circle, a traditional cour d’honneur similar to the entry court at Blenheim Palace.
Additionally, the house received several other impressive features: a prominent pediment with an oval, ox-eye window, a cupola, and a two-story portico along the east façade overlooking the Potomac. While smaller, single-story porches were typical at the time, the mansion’s porch was wide and double-height with classical pilasters and an architrave supporting the cornice above. These classical details were common on public buildings in the 18th century, but Washington’s use of them on his home and in a rural setting was unique at the time. He was inspired more by the great country houses of Europe than by contemporary American examples.
To complete his renovations “left so long unfinished,’ Washington commissioned Philadelphia artisan Joseph Rakestraw to complete a custom weather vane–“a bird…with an olive branch in its mouth.” This Dove of Peace symbolized not only the domestic tranquility enjoyed by the Washingtons and their guests at Mount Vernon, but also the enduring peace he hoped the new nation would enjoy throughout its history.
The house itself is filled with remarkable relics of the life of man who was and is “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen…second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life.” Still today the key to the Bastille in Paris hangs on the wall. Given to Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette, his friend and aide during the Revolution, it was meant, in the Marquis’ words as” a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-camp to my General, [and] as a missionary of liberty to her Patriarch.”
Mount Vernon was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960 and was later listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Washington and his wife Martha hosted countless guests from around the world during their time at the estate. Thanks to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and its successors, the Washingtons’ enthusiasm for sharing their home continues today. Beautifully maintained and still a working farm, it remains a testament both to the greatness of Washington and to his own love for the estate, the house, and the life he lived there.