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Saving Mount Vernon
by
Bob Brooke

 

From his home, Mount Vernon, George Washington once wrote an English correspondent, "No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this."



After his retirement from the presidency in 1797, guests, mostly uninvited, besieged George Washington and his wife, Martha at Mount Vernon.

George was 11 years old when his father, Augustine, died in 1743, leaving the family home to his elder half brother, Lawrence, who named it Mount Vernon after Admiral Edward Vernon, his commanding officer in the Caribbean. George Washington spent a lot of time at this home during his teend. Following Lawrence’s death in 1752, he leased Mount Vernon from his widow. And when she died in 1761, Washington inherited the property.

Between 1734 and 1799 General Washington developed Mount Vernon into one of the finest estates of the period. His land holdings grew from 3,126 acres to slightly more than 8,000. He also doubled the size of the modest nine-room one-and-one-half story house he inherited. He quite successfully incorporated in his home many of the architectural refinements which were so popular in England at the time. To support the mansion house, he built a group of flanking service buildings. or "dependencies," most of which still survive. The gardens and grounds remain substantially as he designed and planted them in the late 18th century.

Mount Vernon Maintenance and Restoration
Following the deaths of George Washington in 1799 and Martha in 1802, Mount Vernon remained in the family for three generations. But inheritance taxes, changing markets for agricultural products, and throngs of visitors made it impossible for the owners to maintain Mount Vernon. By the 1850s, the home Washington painstakingly developed was beginning to crumble.



After Washington’s death, the responsibility of maintaining the estate and acting as host to the large numbers who came from home and abroad—some out of idle curiosity but the majority with the sincere desire to pay their respects at the Home and Tomb of Washington –became a heavy burden on the successive owners. Even under George Washington's careful management his farm lands were unproductive, a condition which intensified with the years. The buildings deteriorated and the gardens and grounds suffered. By 1850, Mr. John A. Washington, Jr., the last private owner, attempted, without success, to interest the State of Virginia and the Federal Government in the purchase and preservation of the property.

One evening in 1853 South Carolina socialite Louise Dalton Bird Cunningham stared out from the deck of her steamer on the Potomac and saw Washington's home in near shambles. She wrote her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, "If the men of America have seen fit to allow the home of its most respected hero to go to ruin, why can't the women of America band together to save it?" Miss Cunningham ignited the preservation movement when she wrote a letter to the editor of a South Carolina newspaper appealing to Americans to come to the rescue of Mount Vernon. She invited influential women from both the North and the South to serve as the original vice-regents of the newly formed Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which was the first national women's organization in America.

By 1858 Miss Cunningham had enough money to arrange a meeting with Washington to finalize the sale. He wasn’t convinced that a group of women could manage Mount Vernon, and Ann Pamela Cunningham left empty-handed. When she found the boat she expected to take her home had already left, she returned to her uncordial host. She again engaged in conversation with him and, with the help of his wife, was able to dispel his fears. The Ladies' Association became the owner of Mount Vernon with the stipulation that the Commonwealth of Virginia would assume responsibility for the home and grounds if the Ladies' Association floundered. Its work as the first organization in America devoted to the preservation of a historic site had begun. The association's original vision became the mission statement that continues today: "Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge—see to it that you keep it the home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no van-dal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress. Those who go to the home in which he lived and died wish to see in what he lived and died. Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change. Upon you rests this duty." The association, which maintains a headquarters with lodging on the Mount Vernon property, still consists of trustees, or vice regents, who represent their home states, and a regent, or chairman. The non-profit association still receives no federal or state financial aid and relies solely on admission fees, revenues from food and gift sales, and donations from foundations businesses and individuals.



The Association refurnished the house with period pieces. Year after year by purchase, donation. indefinite loan and bequest, it slowly reassembled the furnishings that were at Mount Vernon in the time of Washington.

Antiques at Mount Vernon
The home George Washington acquired in 1752 was one and half stories with a central hall and four small rooms on the first floor. Prior to his marriage in 1759, Washington enlarged the home to accommodate his bride, widow Martha Custis, and her two children, John Parke Custis and Martha Parke "Patsy" Custis. His skills as a surveyor and architect are evident today when visitors approach Mount Vernon. Most noticeable from the outside are the English Palladian windows and the high column piazza, which extends the full length of the house.



The two-story large dining room, also known as the new room, was the last addition to the home. White chintz curtains with deep festoons of green satin accent Palladian windows. The mantel, a gift from English friend Samuel Vaughan, arrived in 1785 as the decoration of the room was in progress. Vaughan also gave Washington three Worcester mantel vases, circa 1770. Two Hepplewhite sideboards flank the windows; one is original to the home while the other is of the period. Beneath the windows sit nine of the original 24 chairs made for this room in 1797 by John Aitken of Philadelphia. This handsome room was also where George Washington received notification of his election to the presidency in 1789, and where his body lay in state before entombment a decade later.



The passage, or central hall, extends the full-length of the house from the front door on the courtyard side to the piazza over-looking the Potomac as was the custom in the Southern homes. During warm weather, it was the most comfortable room in the house and the center of informal social life for the family and its visitors. Between the doorways to the downstairs bedroom and the dining room hangs the key to the Bastille, a present from Gen. Lafayette in 1790 and one of the few possessions in the home when the Ladies' Association acquired it in 1860. Over the piazza are two plaster lions received from England in 1757.

The Little Parlor indicates the important role of music in the Washington household. Music and dancing were the primary recreations at lively social gatherings of family and friends.

The Front Parlor, or West Parlor, is an outstanding example of colonial Virginia interiors that dates to the first enlargement of the home prior to Washington's marriage. The Washington family coat of arms appears in a carved and painted representation in the pediment over the mantel and in a decorative panel on top of an original mirror. Washington's crest is cast into the iron fireback of the fireplace opening. It’s one of four firebacks he purchased in Philadelphia in 1787. Here "GW" replaces the mullets and bars in the shield. Before the completion of the large dining room, Washington considered this the best room of the house and graced it with 13 family portraits.

The ornate mantel and decorated ceiling in the Small Dining Room give it a formal air. The English sideboard table is similar to the one willed to General Robert E. Lee and his wife, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Of the nine original Chippendale ladder-back chairs, five are identical and belong to a numbered set. The large mahogany square cellarette with brass lifting handles and casters is believed to have been imported by Washington just before his marriage.

The downstairs bedroom, a common feature in Virginia homes, may have been the master bedroom until the south end of the house was completed in 1775. Today, it houses Martha Washington's upholstered sewing chair.

There are five bedrooms on the second floor. The first room at the head of the stairway is the blue bedroom, so named for the color of its woodwork. Antiques displayed in these rooms include Martha Washington's Chinese dressing glass and tea service, a trunk that accompanied her on her journeys to and from the winter quarters of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, and the crib given to Nelly Custis Lewis following the birth of her first child.

A narrow stairway over the study leads to the master bedroom, which was separate from the other bedrooms to give George and Martha Washington privacy in a house overflowing with family and guests. In this room and on this bed George Washington died on December 14, 1799. Martha Washington's grandson, George Washington Parke Curtis, inherited the bed and carefully preserved it. His descendants returned it to Mount Vernon in 1908.

Washington's study was where he headed immediately upon arising, which was often before sunrise. It was here that he prepared himself for the day's activities. Original books from his library and his presidential desk chair were acquired through the purchase of Mount Vernon by the Ladies' Association. At the close of his presidency, Washington disposed of his desk and purchased the tambour secretary made by John Aitken for this room.

No tour of this 500-acre estate is complete without exploring beyond the mansion. The north lane, which leads north from the driveway circle, contains outbuildings that include the "gardiners" house, the salt house, the spinning house and slave quarters. The south lane contains the kitchen, the storehouse, the stable and clerk's quarters. Four gardens and a greenhouse cover six acres, plus there's a four-acre pioneer farm site.

Today, Mount Vernon is one of the best remaining examples of the plantations around which centered the highly developed social and economic life of the South in 18th-century America. Visitors can inspect a dozen buildings. While the mansion is of prime interest and importance, no one should leave the estate, particularly on their first visit, without making a pilgrimage to George Washington’s Tomb at the foot of the graveyard enclosure. On a stone tablet above the gate. there's a modest inscription "Within this enclosure rest the remains of Gen. George Washington."

And while Mount Vernon may have been the first historic house to be saved in the United States, it's by far not the last. Hundreds of historic house museums around the country can thank Pamela Cunningham for beginning a tradition that has lasted for nearly two centuries.

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