George Washington’s iconic home, Mount Vernon, wears out like any other home. For 45 years, George himself oversaw and expanded the Mansion. As a child, he had lived in the home his father built in 1734, which was gradually expanded to the house we know today. After passing through the hands of his brother, niece, and his widowed sister-in-law, George first leased and then inherited the estate.
Owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association since they bought it in December of 1848, Mount Vernon requires constant maintenance and occasional major restorations and renovations. A significant project is under way now on the Mansion from 2023 to 2026. (Many outbuildings are also preserved on the estate.)
HVAC for preservation
In Washington’s day, his home relied on fireplaces, windows, and doors for heating and cooling. For the thousands of daily visitors to his home now, those sources are not adequate.
An underground utility bunker near the Mansion has been expanded to house updated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning equipment. This replaces a system installed in 1999 in the cellar. The older system prevented some areas of the cellar from regular inspection, and due to humidity, some structural elements have deteriorated. This damage can now be repaired, and the new system will provide climate control in the cellar for the first time. When the project is complete, more of the cellar will be accessible to visitors.
Drainage for the cellar
Many of us have lived in or known of homes with a damp cellar—or even flooding—due to rain and groundwater intrusion. Washington himself dealt with this, and the drains he installed in the cellar have been uncovered in the course of repair work.
Despite his early efforts, dampness in the cellar has continued to cause problems, so new, underfloor drains are being installed.
How did the Washingtons use their cellar? They stored food and supplies, a familiar use for today’s “basement” areas. The cellar also housed a kitchen for use by the enslaved household staff. And at least one staff member is believed to have lived in the cellar.
Framing and masonry repairs
Scientific study of the Mansion’s first-floor joists has determined the date of construction to be 1734, when Augustine Washington, George’s father, owned the estate. Moisture and termites caused damage to the wood framing, and by the late 1800s several localized areas were repaired. Unfortunately, the repairs did not always take into account overall structural issues, and a more comprehensive repair is now needed.
(Photo by Martin Falbisoner)
Can you imagine all you would need to remove from your home’s structure to reach and repair the wooden framework within? And to do all that without damage, so it could all be replaced when the work is finished? The Mount Vernon Ladies Association is devoted to preservation of the Mansion as it was when Washington lived there, and I’m thankful that craftsmen are available today with the skills to do that work.
As for masonry, the stone and brick components in the 18th century were softer than today’s, and the mortar used to hold them together was also a soft mortar. Modern “Portland cement” is much harder. Repairs made during the last century using modern cement have contributed to the deterioration of the original brick and stone elements. A historic soft mortar will be used to replace the hard mortar, bringing these structural elements into a more original state.
Christmas at Mount Vernon
The Washingtons celebrated Christmas with special foods and traditions, as many of us do. At Christmas in 1787, George surprised the household and guests by hiring a camel to be brought to Mount Vernon. This year, Aladdin the camel will amuse visitors to the estate from November 26 to January 6. Special seasonal activities include a candlelight mansion tour, chocolate making, fifing demonstrations of 18th century holiday music, and fresh baked gingerbread.
One Washington family holiday tradition you can follow at home is baking Martha’s Great Cake. The recipe is available at Mount Vernon’s website.
Visiting Mount Vernon during preservation
If you plan to visit Mount Vernon—which I highly recommend—be sure to consult their website so you know what to expect during this busy time of restoration. Some parts of the mansion must be closed to allow this work to take place. However, the estate has many other attractions and a wonderful museum.
George Washington is quoted as saying “I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world.” As Washington said in 1797, I now send you “the compliments of the season, and the return of many, many more, and happy ones.”