We walk through the gate and approach the main house from the northwest. The first impression, across the broad expanse of the Bowling Green, is of a huge, magnificent, white stone mansion, set on a low hill overlooking the Potomac River.
My wife and I are excited to visit Mount Vernon. After years of researching George Washington for my debut novel — Finding George Washington: A Time Travel Tale — I’m finally getting to see his home! We follow our tour up a long approach road, learning from our guide that, despite outward appearance, the façades of the house and several other buildings are actually made of wood, treated with a technique called rustication to mimic the texture of stone.
We’re herded through the house fairly quickly. No photos inside, we are admonished, though other tourists sneak pictures and selfies when the guide is not watching.
We learn that the New Room, the largest space in the mansion, was added on to the original building in a years-long construction project begun by George Washington’s cousin Lund, who managed the estate while the General was leading the Continental Army during the Revolution.
The New Room is two stories tall, which makes it seem quite grand. George, ever the micromanager, completed the construction and decorative details after his return from the war.
The walls are painted a deep shade of teal that I didn’t expect to see in this relic of pre-industrial society. The guide tells us that deeply saturated wall paint like this was a mark of wealth in George’s day. The New Room isn’t really that large. In fact, the whole house is smaller than it appeared on first viewing.
Washington’s study in the mansion contains original furnishings, including glass-doored bookcases and a desk with a fan operated by a foot-pedal contraption. In one corner, we see a bust of George by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, who spent weeks with the Washingtons in 1785 — after the Revolution, but before his first term as president. Houdon applied a “life mask” of wet plaster to George’s face, for an accurate rendition of his looks.
Martha Washington considered this to be the most true-to-life likeness of the many images of her husband over the years. It shows George in his prime, the model for the profile shot on the quarter dollar. I enjoy it much more than the dollar-bill Gilbert Stuart portrait of a much older-looking, marble-faced George, painted in 1796 just three years before his demise.
The Piazza, a broad covered porch on the Potomac side of the mansion, was cleverly designed to provide large expanses of shade and catch cool breezes off the river on hot days. No air conditioning back then! The mansion is topped by a cupola, which adds an air of grandeur and also helps cool the house by venting hot air up at the roofline.
The slave quarters, recently reconstructed, provide a stark reminder of the labor force, skilled and unskilled, who built and maintained Mount Vernon for so many years. At the time of George’s death, more than 300 enslaved people lived on his plantation, many of them lived in separate men’s and women’s barracks.
Until fairly recently, Mount Vernon’s guides for visitors and official signage mentioned “servants” and “field hands,” but didn’t refer to them as slaves. A visit to the slave cemetery provides a sobering moment. A few years ago, Mount Vernon dedicated a memorial to the hundreds of enslaved people interred there in unmarked graves, and their archeologists began an extensive study to learn more about the burial ground.
The stables are fun. It’s interesting to see the variety of buggies and carriages available. Nearly all transport was horse-drawn in George’s day. We also saw extensive gardens, a fishery, a distillery, a blacksmith shop, and an eight-sided barn.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was the dung heap. Washington was a devoted scientific farmer, always interested in new techniques. He maintained correspondence with experimental farmers in Europe, even during the eight years he was away from Mount Vernon during the war. He is widely credited with being the first composter in North America.
The covered dung heap, aka compost pile, is strategically located a bit downhill from the mansion, between the kitchens and the stables. Convenient for food scraps and horse manure. Slaves, of course, did all the cooking, stable cleaning, stirring of the dung heap, and spreading of the fertilizing compost on the fields of the five farms that make up George Washington’s Mount Vernon.