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Sunday, June 24, 2012

George Washington the Architect

Though romanticized, this period illustration depicts
Washington while his home was under expansion
We all know George Washington as the father of our country. And whether cutting down cherry trees or throwing money across the Potomac, we know him as a man of myth and legend. We know him as a great general. We know him as a consummate statesman, political leader, as our first president, as a man of honesty, and high moral character. He was also an outstanding businessman, surveyor, scholar, and gentleman farmer. And while we're familiar with his role as one of our founding fathers and architect of a great nation, few of us are aware that he was also something of an architect in the traditional sense of the word. And though he didn't study the subject in great depth or ply his skills in this area to the degree his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, did; we do see the refined taste and ingenuity of an artist in the single example of his architectural endeavors, his graceful home at Mount Vernon.

Though considered by Washington as the "front" and main entrance of the house, the west facade has a distinctly "back door" appearance.
In 1752, upon the death of his brother, Lawrence, Washington purchased the Mount Vernon plantation from his brother's widow. The house was a modest, one-and-a-half story, six-room farmhouse of frame construction situated high on a hill overlooking the Potomac River. It had been built by George's father, Augustine Washington, around 1735. His sons grew up there. Flanked by chimney's on either end with an asymmetrical arrangement of doors, dormers, and windows, the house was little different from hundreds of other rural Virginia homes of its time. Between 1752 and 1759, as he prepared to take a wife, Washington enlarged it by literally raising the roof, adding a full second story while maintaining the attic space, making a total of twelve rooms, eight of them bedrooms (the kitchen was in a separate structure to reduce the danger of fire). An office structure opposite the kitchen was built about his time also.

Mount Vernon's most uniquely Washingtonian architectural feature is the east portico overlooking the Potomac.
One of the things that sets Washington apart as an able architect was that when he next undertook to enlarge his home, he was forced to do so in absentia while off directing the American Revolution. On site, the project was directed by a distant cousin, Lund Washington who was manager of the plantation in the general's absence. Letters and reports were exchanged on a weekly basis, plans drawn before the war were revised, even the smallest of details were discussed and directed in this manner. All of this, of course, was in addition to routine plantation business and on top of Washington's pressing duties as commander of the Continental Army. Today, such an endeavor would be a considerable undertaking even with modern e-mail, faxes, and voice communication.  Two-hundred, thirty-five years ago, to have accomplished all this through hand written communication carried by postal couriers must have been the occasion for a significant case of writer's cramp and perhaps the equivalent of a small miracle.

The house grew as gracefully as the man.
Moreover the wartime expansion of Mount Vernon was no small undertaking either. During the 1770s, the house was effectively doubled in size with a two-story banquet hall/ballroom added on the north end, while a library and master bedroom (on the second floor) were added to the south end of the house. A wide, low central pediment on the west side helped to unite the entrance facade; and the innovative, two-story piazza did the same for the river-fronting east elevation. At the same time, a large cupola was added on the roof and curved, arched walkways connected the the main house with the kitchen and office structures; completing the graceful mansion we see today.

Washington's fake stone facade.
Although Washington had in his library English books on architecture from which he apparently drew the elegant Palladian window which graces the ballroom, the cupola as well as the piazza, with its eight slender, square columns, seem to have been of his own design. Though much imitated since, there can be found no example of either in this country before 1800. One hundred years before the first masonry veneers were applied to wood frame homes, another interesting innovation, apparently invented by Washington the architect, was the use of beveled wooden panels shaped to look like dressed stone and applied to the exterior of the structure.  They not only served to cover up the fact that the house had been enlarged twice in its early history, but when coated with a white paint to which was added a generous amount of sand, gave the appearance of limestone masonry. The sad irony in Washington's architectural efforts to design and build such an impressive, yet warm and graceful home was the fact that his duties in helping foster and guide a great nation in its infancy, left him little time to live there. He died on December 14, 1799, less than two and a half years after serving two terms as president and retiring to Mount Vernon.

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