The preservation and restoration of Mount Vernon was an unprecedented national effort that relied upon the generosity of thousands. Three women, however, can be singled out for their significant contributions to the site. If not for their leadership, Mount Vernon would not exist as it is today.
It is notable that these three “pioneers of preservation” are women. During critical moments in Mount Vernon’s history, women have stepped into action. Beginning with Ann Pamela Cunningham’s initial crusade to save the Estate to the generous financial contributions of Phoebe Apperson Hearst and Frances Payne Bolton, women have played a remarkable role in the preservation and restoration of Mount Vernon.
Ann Pamela Cunningham was born on a prosperous South Carolina plantation in 1816. Born into privilege, Miss Cunningham was groomed to conform to the social standards which governed the lives of proper ladies. Her life changed dramatically at the age of 17 when she suffered a spinal injury after being thrown from a horse, bringing chronic pain that plagued her for the rest of her life. Miss Cunningham traveled regularly to Pennsylvania for medical treatment and was there in the fall of 1853 when her mother, after making living arrangements for her daughter, returned to South Carolina.
Mrs. Louisa Cunningham wrote to her daughter of her return trip:
“It was a lovely moonlit night that we went down the Potomac. I went on deck as the bell tolled and we passed Mount Vernon. I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?”
Ann Pamela Cunningham turned her mother’s thoughts into action. At a time when it was thought appropriate for a woman’s name to appear in a newspaper only on the occasion of her marriage or death, Miss Cunningham sent a letter to the Charleston Mercury, which was published on December 2, 1853. Her plea to the ladies of the south to join together and save Mount Vernon was signed “A Southern Matron.” When the appeal resulted in the formation of small societies and donations throughout the south, Miss Cunningham increased her outreach to include the northern states as well. And from then on, she bravely signed her name to published letters.
The first meeting of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union was held in 1854. The original plan devised by Miss Cunningham called for the women of the United States to donate money through their governors, who would in turn send it to the governor of Virginia for the state to purchase Mount Vernon. As tension between the North and South intensified just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Virginia government decided it could not take on the mission.
Undeterred, Miss Cunningham sought to have the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchase Washington’s home itself. By the spring of 1858, having led the Association in its grassroots fundraising efforts and having received thousands of dollars from people across the country, Ann Pamela Cunningham was so confident that the Association would reach its financial goal that she arranged to meet with John Augustine Washington III, hoping to bring closure to the purchase of Mount Vernon. According to Gerald W. Johnson in his book Mount Vernon: Story of a Shrine, Cunningham found Mount Vernon’s owner in “the worst of tempers.” Washington was cordial but firm in his refusal of Cunningham’s offer, and after listening to “all the arguments she could bring to bear . . . with cold civility, he left her and she went to bed in a state of collapse.”
After a nearly sleepless night in the historic residence she now envisioned slipping through her grasp, Cunningham started anew the following day, this time calling upon the sage advice of Washington’s wife. The result was inevitable. Several hours later, on April 6, 1858, Washington signed a contract of sale with the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union for $200,000.
Without any preservation standard to guide her, Miss Cunningham elected to preserve everything associated with Mount Vernon, contrary to the opinions of others. Some thought the outbuildings should be torn down since they housed only “menials.” Earlier suggestions were to convert the house into an old soldiers’ home or a memorial park featuring marble statues of the nation’s illustrious dead. But Ann Pamela Cunningham possessed a prophetic vision. Former Regent Elswyth Thane remarked of Cunningham’s “extreme projection into the future, her unfailing sense of permanence and continuity in the thing she wanted to do.” Because of that vision, Ann Pamela Cunningham possessed a true preservationist’s nature, declaring in her farewell address to the association the following statement, which has become a guiding mission:
“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.”
Phoebe Apperson Hearst served on the Mount Vernon board from 1889 to 1918 as the Vice Regent for California. She witnessed firsthand the fact that historic preservation is rampant with contradictions. One of the most frequently discussed issues is the installment of modern utility systems. Such was the case when board members assembled at Mount Vernon in 1916 to review a plan put forth by the firm of Thomas Edison, who wanted to “electrify” the mansion for the very first time. Edison offered to install a system powered by generator-fed storage batteries, at a cost of $3,325, with a “guarantee of absolute safety.” The board was skeptical, as reported in the minutes of 1916:
“The proposed installation of electricity at Mount Vernon came as a shock to some of the Vice Regents, seeming to be most incongruous in this antique home where everything in the way of colonial customs is preserved as far as possible. The question of safety was the strongest argument used, kerosene lamps and candles being considered dangerous on account of fire. After all, kerosene was as unknown to Washington as electricity. Discussion of the innovation occupied some time, the majority of the Vice Regents finally becoming convinced that for safeguarding the buildings at Mount Vernon electricity should be installed.”
The Regents and Vice Regents did indeed vote to adopt the new system, after being nudged in the right direction by the Vice Regent for California, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. She not only argued convincingly that the new system would provide a considerably higher level of safety, but also offered to foot the bill. It was a common gesture, made without fanfare, by one of the great philanthropists of the era.
Phoebe Apperson Hearst had already written checks to build a seawall at Mount Vernon, which halted the severe erosion of the shoreline in front of the mansion. She made regular contributions to the Association’s endowment and purchased period furniture and artworks to support the restoration efforts. At a time when the vast majority of visitors arrived at Mount Vernon by boat, Hearst helped to finance the construction of a major wharf with a handsome pavilion.
Frances Payne Bolton, a Vice Regent and U.S. Congresswoman from Ohio, was described a year after her death in the 1977 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association minutes “as second only to Ann Pamela Cunningham.” Mrs. Bolton was a remarkable woman who ran for her husband’s seat in Congress in a special election in February 1940 after his sudden death. She finished the rest of her husband’s term, and afterwards most expected her to return to her life, as did most widows who succeeded their husbands in elected office. She was, however, reelected in November 1940 and was continually reelected until 1968, when she lost her seat after a reorganization of the district. In 1953, Bolton was the first woman to be appointed a congressional delegate to the United Nations. She was a staunch advocate for women - of the 61 bills she proposed, 25 concerned issues related to women and children.
As a member of Congress, Bolton used her political clout to lobby against air traffic over Mount Vernon, securing a two-mile protective space in all directions. But it was her opposition to the threat from nearby residential and commercial development that earned her the distinction of second only to Cunningham in importance to Mount Vernon.
In the spring of 1955, a Maryland neighbor let it be known that he sold an option on close to 500 acres of land located directly across from Mount Vernon to a group of Texas investors looking for a place to construct a major oil tank farm on a cost-effective river location. There were also plans for a sewage treatment plant. In an attempt to assuage the preservationists, the sewage plant planners offered to make their structure a replica of Mount Vernon - a proposal which only added insult to injury. The challenge of preserving this historic view was a daunting one. It became evident that protection of Washington’s magnificent vista could not be achieved acre by acre; the scale was simply too large. On a clear day, a visitor standing on the piazza at Mount Vernon could see some 80 square miles.
Mount Vernon’s resident director, Charles Cecil Wall, turned to a board member who brought a unique set of weapons to the battle against modern encroachment on the view. Frances Payne Bolton had joined Mount Vernon’s board as Vice Regent for Ohio in 1938, just a few years before assuming her late husband’s seat in Congress. The Bolton family possessed considerable wealth, a wide range of influential friends in both corporate and government communities, and an established track record as philanthropists.
When Wall explained that nearly 500 pristine acres were about to become the new home for an oil tank farm and that his efforts to secure the property through governmental and private resources were unsuccessful, Bolton – not wanting industry to tarnish the icon of American democracy, particularly during this time when Communism was escalating - said, “I’ll do it myself!” She purchased the land, known as Bryan’s Point, for $333,000. Wall rightfully noted “nothing so wonderful has happened since Miss Cunningham signed the purchase agreement with John A. Washington, Jr.” Preserving the view was of paramount importance to Mount Vernon because George Washington had deliberately designed his home to fit within the existing landscape. The Estate was magnificent in part due to its surroundings.
This narrow escape seemed to galvanize the movement to protect the viewshed, and in the spring of 1957, with the support of the National Park Service, Mrs. Bolton organized and was elected president of the Accokeek Foundation, which was chartered “to preserve, protect, and foster . . . an area of great beauty along the Maryland shore.” She remained president until her death in 1976, and over the course of almost 20 years succeeded in saving thousands of acres - proving that one person can make a difference.