Our youngest daughter graduated from college this May and much to our extended family’s dismay we did not plan to throw a celebration in her honor. It’s not that we were not extremely proud of her (she graduated magna cum laude), but knowing our child, we understood that she would prefer a sharp stick in the eye to a party of any kind. So, how to celebrate her accomplishment without torturing her? Her degree is in Creative Writing, but she is an avid student of History and a crazy George Washington fan-girl. As fellow nerds, her father and I recognized that what she would really appreciate as a graduation gift, would be to tour Washington’s home at Mt. Vernon. Having made the decision to make the nearly 7 hour trip to Mt. Vernon, over the Memorial Day weekend, we decided we might as well take advantage of the proximity of Washington’s estate to those of Jefferson and Madison, and make it a Founding Father’s Home Tour History Geek-out Weekend. Since Washington was our first president, it made sense to visit his home first on our itinerary. Mt. Vernon is located on the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia about 30 minutes south of Washington D.C.
We had booked a house tour on-line for 11:20 a.m., providing us (much to my husband and daughter’s consternation) with a good bit of time to walk around the gardens before the guided tour began. There’s a 60-minute garden tour as well that I would have loved to do, but sadly, neither of my traveling companions would have tolerated that. Mt. Vernon’s flower gardens were in full bloom, beautifully maintained, and I adored them. Because I am not a very skilled photographer and shake like a leaf when I attempt to take a photograph, I made my husband lug my tripod around the estate. He is such a good sport, but I know that, particularly in the garden where I wanted shots of everything, he was ready to strangle me.
I think it is so cool that the gardens have been reconstructed by historians to replicate what they would have looked like in Washington’s time. And it makes me feel better about my own horticultural missteps to hear, that, while Washington was an avid gardener, he had many failed experiments in the garden. However, as a would-be gardener, I think Washington must have been cracked to construct an 18-acre deer park on the property. He actually, imported deer from England to create “the picturesque spectacle of wild deer” in his yard. Didn’t he know that marauding deer will eat anything and everything in the garden that is not poisonous?
Thank God for the Mount Washington Ladies Association who rescued and restored this precious landmark from ruin and neglect (all with private funding–no tax dollars). Over the years, they painstakingly tracked down many of the original paintings and furnishings that had been sold off when the family could no longer afford to maintain the property. Washington built Mt. Vernon over a period between 1758 and 1778 on the site of a smaller home previously constructed by his father, Augustine. The house is made of wood and built in the Neoclassical Palladian style which was popular at the time. Despite the elegant decoration which included fashionable and expensive vibrantly painted Prussian blue, egg yolk yellow, and bright green rooms, imported marble fireplaces, exquisitely detailed paneling, and composite relief decoration on the ceilings and walls, Mt. Vernon still has the feel of a family home.
I knew that this tour was a hit when as we were ascending the native black walnut staircase to the second floor, my daughter turned to me, and like a real groupie said, “just imagine George Washington actually touched this very banister that I am touching now.” I am quite concerned that she will never wash her hand again.
One of the many things that I most admired about George and Martha Washington’s estate was the stunning view of the Potomac which you can take in from one of several rocking chairs situated on the back porch of the mansion. I could have sat there all day.
Besides the house and gardens renovations, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has constructed a fantastic museum and education center which is extremely informative and entertaining. In addition to many displays and interactive exhibits of artifacts and objects from Washington’s life, including his famous (rather disgusting) teeth and Martha’s wedding shoes, there are several short films which are included in the price of admission. My favorite was a 4-D interactive film about the Revolution in which it actually snows in the theater while Washington is crossing the Delaware.
One of the things that is difficult to reconcile about Washington, and frankly many of our other founding fathers, is that while they were advocates for the idea that all men are created equal and deserve to live free, they were also life long slave owners. We know from Washington’s writings that he abhorred slavery and made a provision in his will to free his own personal slaves upon the death of his wife. Mount Vernon makes an excellent effort to give an accurate picture of the lives and contributions of the individual enslaved people that lived and worked on the plantation, but there is no doubt that the fact that Washington owned slaves casts a pall on both Washington, the man, and his home.
Never-the-less, Mount Vernon is an awe inspiring place and well worth a visit, offering something to everyone from gardeners and architectural or interior design enthusiasts to presidential and revolutionary war buffs and history nerds of all types, like us. My husband, daughter and I ended up spending most of the day there, and we would all go back again anytime we have the opportunity.
Tips For Touring Mount Vernon
1. Just go To Mount Vernon. I have been to Washington DC many times and toured the museums and monuments but I never included Mount Vernon in my itinerary–big mistake!
2. Visit in the Spring when the gardens are in bloom and the temperature is mild.
- You may want to consider staying in Arlington, VA, as there are not a lot of places to stay in Mount Vernon. We arrived the evening before our tour, stayed overnight in Arlington, and had dinner at the Green Pig Bistro which I highly recommend.
Plan to stay most of the day at Mount Vernon so you can spend ample time touring the house, grounds, museum, education center and gift shop.
The House tour was excellent but if you have time, I would consider taking one of the additional guided tours that are offered including the “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” Tour, the Gardens and Groves tour, the Enslaved People At Mount Vernon tour, the Premium Mansion tour which goes behind the scenes, and the sightseeing cruise of the Potomac.
View the movies which are free with your admission ticket and are presented in the museum and education center. Most particularly don’t miss the 4D Revolutionary War experience movie. Your kids will love seeing the snow fall in the theater.
In addition to Mt. Vernon, stop by Washington’s Distillery and Grist Mill which is only 2.7 miles from the entrance to the mansion. You can see how Washington produced whiskey back in the day and buy a bottle to sample today.
We grabbed a quick lunch in the Food Court but if you have time, the nearby Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant is highly reviewed and serves several authentic specialties from the colonial period.
Our next stop was James Madison’s home, Montpelier which I will feature in the upcoming post of History Geeks’ Founding Fathers Home Tour Part II.
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