Sunday, November 9, 2008

George Washington: Man and Mansion

George Washington was about my age when he inherited Mount Vernon Estate from his half-brother Lawrence, who died of tuberculosis in 1752. The elegant Virginian estate that visitors tour today looks nothing like the humble house that Washington received after Lawrence's death. Although Washington only had the equivalent of an eighth grade education when the property fell into his hands, he immediately began planning ways to renovate his half-brother's ordinary country home. With the addition of two wings, a second and third story, a piazza, and a cupola, Washington transformed Lawrence's six-room farmhouse into a twenty-room mansion. Here, alongside the Potomac River, George and Martha Washington lived happily from their marriage in 1759 until Washington's death in 1799.

In Washington's era, men did the decorating. (They also danced. Perhaps I was born in the wrong century . . .) My tour of Mount Vernon began in the very dining room where Washington became America's first president, a job without a job description. The blue and sea foam green dining room, complete with a marble mantle and wooden candelabras, led to a columned piazza. After pausing to admire the scenic view of the Potomac from the porch, I continued to the piano room and guest room (also painted in blue and sea foam green . . . Washington's colors of choice, I guess). Next, I climbed the stairs to view the master bedroom, the only room that Martha decorated. Martha's decor was surprisingly stark in contrast to her husband's colorful designs. The bedroom, painted all white, was furnished with a simple desk and select pictures of grandchildren. Before exiting the mansion, I walked down the same stairs that Washington used to get to his private study every morning after awaking at 6 or 6:30 AM. Finally, I stopped at the kitchen, an open room separated from the estate. I was shocked to learn that burns were the second leading cause of death among women in the 18th century, as it was easy for their dresses to catch on fire while they cooked over an open flame. Washington's exterior and interior renovations were certainly a success: George and Martha had so many guests that the couple only ate unaccompanied once in 20 years.

You do not need the cherry tree myth to see that George Washington was a man of extraordinary integrity and talent. He was a farmer, an architect, a military general, a president, and a scholar. He increased the Mount Vernon plantation from 2,000 acres to 8,000 acres. He designed a 16-sided "trotting" barn for horses that revolutionized wheat production. He commanded Virginia's militia in the French and Indian War. He organized and led the Revolutionary Army. He served as the head of the Constitutional Convention. He set a precedent for future presidents by giving up his power as Commander in Chief after two terms.

Despite his numerous accomplishments on the battlefield and in political halls, George Washington felt most comfortable at the Virginian estate that he worked so hard to construct. In a letter, Washington wrote, "I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe."

1 comment:

Genevieve said...

I had no idea that men did the decorating in Washington's time. I wonder when that went out of style.