For this presentation I’m going to be exploring the idea of historical sites using Mount Vernon as a sort of case study. First we’ll look at Mount Vernon as a National Historic Landmark and how it exists within a larger complex system of historic designation within the United States. This will include a brief overview of National Register of Historic Places. Then we’ll talk about Mount Vernon at the time it still in possession of the Washington family, both regarding its height as a plantation under George Washington and also its decline. Then we’ll talk about the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the MVLA including who they were and what they did to both acquire Mount Vernon and develop it into the historical site that it is today When discussing both Mount Vernon while it was still under the ownership of the Washington family and its evolution under the MVLA we’ll also look at the changing interpretations of Mount Vernon as a historical site, such as what stories were told and which were not, and the changing significances of the site from the Revolutionary period up to the present. Click Image: Aquatint by Francis Jukes c. 1800
The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966 as part of the National Historic Preservation Act. Today it is administered by the National Park Service, an agency within the Department of the Interior. This register essentially constitutes the United State’s official national list of “historic Properties.” Within the National Register there are five general categories of properties: building, structure, object, site, and district.
To be added to the National Register of Historic Places there is a complex nomination process, in which a property must meet a number of criteria as defined in the 60 page National Register Bulletin. The four criteria are Event, Person, Design/ Construction, and Information Potential. And these categories essentially establish why a property is nationally significant and worth preserving. Sometimes properties are added automatically to the National Register when they become designations of the National Park Service, these types of properties include National Historic Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Parks, National Historic Military Parks/ Battlefields/ National Memorials/ and some National Monuments. Mount Vernon was listed as part of the National Registry when it was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 19, 1960
To give you some fast facts about Mount Vernon: It is located in Fairfax County, Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River. The property was originally called Little Hunting Creek Plantation by the Washingtons when they acquired the property in 1674. The property was later renamed “Mount Vernon” by Washington’s older half brother Lawrence in honor of his commanding officer in the British Navy Admiral Edward Vernon. Washington would keep this name when he inherited the property in 1761 and its what the site is known as today. When Washington inherited the estate it consisted of about 2,000 acres of property, which he divided into five working farms, including the Mansion House farm where the family lived. The Mansion originally consisted of four rooms on the first floor and three bedrooms on the second. Washington’s changes to the property were indeed a lifetime pursuit, and his many changes include increasing the stories of the house from 1 and a half stories to two and a half stories, redecorating the interior, the rustication of the exterior, which involved coating the outside wish a mixture of sand and paint to give the appearance of stone. He also added at two-story porch.
In 1799 Washington died and was entombed on the grounds of Mount Vernon. By the time of his death, he has increased the acreage of the estate from 2,000 acres to 8,000. After Washington’s death the plantation began to deteriorate rather rapidly both regarding the size and the condition of the property itself. It passed through the hands of a number of relatives, until in 1853 his great-grand nephew John Augustine Washington unsuccessfully attempted to sell the property in 1853 to both the federal government and to the state of Virginia. Photo : http://dc.about.com/od/photos/ss/MtVernonPhotos_8.htm
It was in 1853 that Ann Pamela Cunningham, after hearing of the disrepair of the property from her mother, formed the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, successfully purchased the mansion and a portion of the land in 1858. Considered the oldest national historic preservation organization, since 1858 the MVLA has operated as a non-profit organization that does not accept grants from federal, state or local government and no tax dollars. Today the estate encompasses 500 acres, including 20 structures and 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799, complete to the home decor. There is also a museum, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, Washington’s greenhouse, an exhibit of American agriculture, a slave memorial, numerous collections, a library, and strong preservation and archeological department. A cornerstone of the MVLA’s mission with regard to Mount Washington is returning the plantation as close as possible to its state in 1799.
In her farewell address to the MVLA when she stepped down from the governing body, Ann Pamela Cunningham stated: 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 vandal 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. A cornerstone of the MVLA’s mission with regard to Mount Washington is returning the plantation as close as possible to its state in 1799, but I want us to think about is the idea of progress, because in many senses it is something that is inevitable especially when it comes to the changing interpretations of a historical site. In the years after the Revolutionary War, Washington was revered, seen as emulating courage, patriotic self-sacrifice, and a disinterest in public service. During this period Mount Vernon represented almost a site of pilgrimage while Washington was alive and a chance for a physical encounter with a great leader, such encounters are virtually impossible today. After Washington’s death fascination with the site increased. It was much like a national shrine both Washington and the eighteenth century republican ideals he represented. By the 1850s tens of thousands of visitors were visiting the site each year, and visitors roamed the site unhindered, even taking away souvenirs. Despite the locations decay until the time when the MVLA got involved, it was still considered a relic not a ruin. Even during the civil war the site was considered neutral ground and was virtually undamaged the union and confederate forces.
The end of the civil war and the end of slavery forced a re-evaluation of Mount Vernon as a historical site. As a typical southern plantation owner, upon Washington’s death 312 slaves were living on the estate. While Washington arranged in his will for his slaves to be freed upon the death of his wife, the dower slaves, or those belonging to Martha were divided among her children upon her death. Slaves played an intimate role within Mount Vernon up until the time of the civil war, and many continued to work as free laborers at the site afterwards. While the MVLA did not have exclusionary policies on the grounds after the war, African Americans were most present in the Mansion’s kitchen and working on the grounds. Up until the twentieth century Mount Vernon promoted a myth of harmonious race relations under slavery so as to not insult any potential visitors or tarnish Washington’s memory and significance as a national hero. African American workers on the grounds were hired to tell guests fabricated stories in which slaves “served with honor under the president” (Kahrl). The MVLA, while attempting to present Mount Vernon as it was in the late eighteenth century, through actions such as restoring the house and restoring artifacts of Washington’s, Cunningham believed the Estate’s mission was to inspire good taste and the strong moral code the property was seen to represent. Visitors were greeted with very little interpretation or narrative, and issue of slavery was virtually ignored.
In the 1990s there was an increasing tendency to make education play a central role within historical sites because it was believed that Americans were not understanding their own history. In 1995, the MVLA expanded its preservation mission to include education, in order to inform “visitors and people through the world about the life and legacies of George Washington, so that his example of character and leadership will continue to inform and inspire future generations.” The motivation was to humanize Washington both in the portrayal of his life and actions, through the history of Mount Vernon as a working slave plantation of the south, while at the same time keeping Washington as a source of inspiration as the founder of our country. The most visible way this is done was by highlighting the issue of slavery to the historical narrative of Mount Vernon, rather than glossing over it. The issue of slavery is explored today at the site through the Slave Quarters and the reconstructed Slave Cabin (opened to the public in 2007), the Slave Memorial dedicated in 1983 at the Slave Burial Ground, and the slavery gallery in the new Donald W. Reynolds Education Center.
Costumed characters are also an important aspect of the site, and the actors are supposed to give Interpretive Performances from multiple perspectives of George Washington through the eyes of his family, friends, revolutionaries, slaves, and employees.
Mount Vernon is also still in constant development. In 2006, the state of the art Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center were opened on the Mount Vernon grounds as part of fulfilling the sites mission of education. Highlights of these new facilities include new theaters that include the film Fight to be Free which is meant to portray the “real” George Washington, and the education center that offers interactive video and audio features as well six permanent galleries and one changing exhibit. In reading reviews, common themes included that the new additions to Mount Vernon provided more information for visitors that could be approached from a number of different angles. The goal is also to create an increasingly complete view of Mount Vernon’s history, through the inclusion of topics such as slavery, but that the image was still too picture perfect, where the visitor still can not understand how it felt, looked, and sounded to be a part of Mount Vernon. One interesting thing to note is that the buildings were constructed to have as little impact on the aesthetic quality of Mount Vernon as possible an the Reynolds Museum and Education Center is mostly underground. In addition, in terms of constantly adding to the historical record regarding Washington and Mount Vernon preservation and archaeology are ongoing projects on Estate’s grounds, with a much more significance than in the early years of the MVLA.
So do historical sites have value? I think the answer to that question is easily yes. Without the MVLA, Mount Vernon could have easily deteriorated into nothing. Are they 100% representations of the past, no, they’re too clean and well manicured if you will, and during my research, while slavery plays a major role in the historical narrative of Mount Vernon, that fear of tarnishing Washington’s memory still lingers. Mount Vernon still represents a sort of pilgrimage and a sign of patriotism to understand the “father of our country.” But the vision of Washington and Mount Vernon, while not perfectly balanced, is getting clearer.
Mount vernon powerpoint
George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens Historic Sites and Evolving Interpretations Jesse Gagnon September 30, 2010