An Illustrated Handbook of Mount Vernon The Home of Washington

- By Mount Vernon Ladies' Association
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The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is a non-profit organization that preserves and maintains the Mount Vernon estate originally owned by George Washington and family.[1] It was founded in 1853 by Ann Pamela Cunningham of Rosemont Plantation, South Carolina. After the deaths of George Washington (in 1799) and his widow Martha (in 1802), Mount Vernon remained in the family for three generations. John Augustine Washington III, a great-great-nephew of George Washington, eventually inherited the property, but he could not afford to maintain it.[2] He offered to sell the estate to either the Federal government or the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the legislatures declined, saying it would not be proper to spend taxpayers' money to acquire private property.
The Home of Washington
In the year 1674, by Grant of Lord Culpeper, a tract of 5,000 acres situated on the west bank of the Potomac River, fifteen miles south of the present city of Washington, became the property of John Washington and Nicholas Spencer. Half of this tract, or 2,500 acres, descended to Lawrence Washington, who, in 1743, built a residence, and named the estate Mount Vernon, after the British Admiral under whom he had served. At Lawrence Washington's death (1752) the estate passed to the ownership of his half brother, George Washington, who subsequently extended the boundaries of his plantation until they included nearly 8,000 acres.
In 1799, when George Washington died, the property passed as a life interest to his widow, by whose will most of the household effects in the Mansion were, after her death, divided among her four grandchildren. Thus was the original furniture of Mount Vernon eventually scattered. Bushrod Washington, John Augustine Washington, and John A. Washington, Jr., followed in succession as owners of Mount Vernon.
These gentlemen furnished the Mansion according to their individual tastes and made such minor changes as papering or painting the interior to preserve it. Mr. John A. Washington, Jr., the last-named owner, in accordance with the wishes of his family, to effect a permanent preservation of the property, offered to sell it to the National Government. This project failed, as did likewise an attempt to sell to the Commonwealth of Virginia.
At this juncture the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union was (in 1856) organized by Miss Pamela Cunningham, of South Carolina. Her appeal to the patriotism of all American women (December, 1853) resulted in the accomplishment of her noble project in spite of many obstacles. The purchase money was raised by contributions from thirty-three States of the Union, materially aided by Hon. Edward Everett, of Massachusetts, in lecturing for the benefit of the Mount Vernon Fund, his contributions amounting to $68,294.59. In 1858, this Association was thus enabled 4 to buy from Mr. John A. Washington, Jr., and his heirs, 202 acres of the Mount Vernon estate, including the Tomb, the Mansion, attendant buildings, the wharf, etc., the price paid being $200,000 and interest.
In 1887, an important addition of 33½ acres was achieved through the generosity of the late Mr. Jay Gould, of New York; in 1893 Mr. Christian Heurich, of Washington, D. C., gave three acres, and in 1925 Mr. and Mrs. Hugh McK. Landon, of Indianapolis, kindly donated about 23 acres more, thus making the total area owned by the Mt. Vernon Ladies' Association approximately 260 acres.
Among the many who visit Mount Vernon few are aware of what an expensive undertaking is involved in its restoration and preservation, nor do they realize on entering its gates that they, too, contribute their mite toward the maintenance of this historic place. To retain the appearance of that simplicity which characterized the home life of Washington, to preserve the reverence of his hallowed shrine and at the same time meet the protective requirements incident to increasing wear and tear, has been a problem to be mastered.
While the employment of modern appliances has become a necessity, they are masked as much as possible to avoid glaring contrast with the more primitive methods of olden times. For instance: to guard against accidents by fire all former and dangerous means of heating the buildings have given place to a hot water system, the 5 mains of which pass through subterranean conduits from a distant (underground) boiler room, and all buildings are lighted by a system of low voltage electricity installed under the direction of Mr. Edison.
Fire engines-both chemical and steam-are at hand for instant use, and guards are on constant watch both day and night. Powerful modern pumps (electrically driven) supply water from an artesian well for household purposes, and keep the emergency reservoirs filled. Sanitary drainage is an essential improvement. Bogs and swamps have been reclaimed to make the place more healthful. Threatening landslides near the Mansion and old Tomb were averted by the costly expedient of tunneling the hill to drain the water-bearing sands, the source of disastrous surface movements which had caused Washington much alarm.
The Association owes to the interest and patriotism of Prof. Charles Sprague Sargent, of Arnold Arboretum, the replacement and listing of many trees planted at Mount Vernon during Washington's lifetime. A plan with the position of all historic trees is shown in the guide book. Successful efforts have been made to replant both the grounds of the Mansion and the surrounding woods according to Washington's original idea as expressed in his diary. The repair and safeguarding of buildings and their contents, attention to the old trees Washington loved, his roads, walks, gardens and grounds, continually tax the energy and resources of the Association. That the steadfast aim and purpose, thus successfully achieved, is appreciated by those who are familiar with it, is admirably expressed in the concluding chapter of Owen Wister's "Seven Ages of Washington." The following is a brief quotation:
"Everything, every subject, every corner and step, seems to bring him close. It is an exquisite and friendly serenity which bathes one's sense, that seems to be charged all through with some meaning or message of beneficence and reassurance, but nothing that could be put in words. Turn into his garden and look at the walls and walks he planned, the box hedges, the trees, the flower beds, the great order and the great sweetness everywhere. You may spend an hour, you may spend a day, wandering, sitting, feeling this gentle power of the place; you may come back another time, it meets you, you cannot dispel it by familiarity. And as you think of this you bless the devotion of those whose piety and care treasure the place and keep it sacred and beautiful.

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Word Lists:

Acre : a unit of land area equal to 4,840 square yards (0.405 hectare)

Landslide : the sliding down of a mass of earth or rock from a mountain or cliff

Patriotism : the quality of being patriotic; devotion to and vigorous support for one's country

Subterranean : existing, occurring, or done under the earth's surface


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