An early postcard image of the Yellow Room. From Mount Vernon Digital Collections.Located on the southeast corner of the second floor, the Yellow Room overlooks the Potomac River. It connects the central portion of the mansion to the south wing through a door installed by John Augustine Washington III in the 1840s.1 Under the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA), the room serves primarily as a passageway to the south wing to accommodate tours.

Known as the Yellow Room by the MVLA since 1928, an early Mount Vernon Visitor’s Guide called this the “Bride’s Room.”2 However, a scrap of green wallpaper found under a cornice by Ann Pamela Cunningham in 1869 led the MVLA to name it the Green Room in visitor’s guides from the 1880s through the 1920s. After the first Vice-Regent from West Virginia, Mrs. Ella Bassett Washington3, adopted the room in 1880, it also became known as the West Virginia Room. Green wallpaper fragment, discovered in the Yellow Room. Mount Vernon collection number RP3229.001.A descendant of the Dandridge and Washington families, Ella Washington acquired furnishings associated with members of the Washington and Custis families, such as: the bed that Martha Washington’s son, John Parke Custis died in; a chair that belonged to George Washington’s brother, William Augustine Washington; and a mirror that belonged to another of his brothers, Samuel Washington. 4

Following Victorian tastes5, Ella Washington had the room painted buff with green woodwork trim. In the 1870s, the addition of a display case in the room focused The Yellow Room, then known as the Green Room, c. 1890s. From Mount Vernon Digital Collections. attention on additional relics associated with the Washingtons. The contents of the case in the Green Room varied from a suit of George Washington's clothes, Martha Washington’s bathing dress, and the original cornerstone of Mount Vernon6 to a box containing handles, tack, and black cloth from the George Washington’s outer coffin.7   Ella Washington continued to add items to the room with family connections, such as a washstand from a great-grand-niece of Martha Washington8 and portraits of Lawrence and Betty Washington, George Washington’s siblings.9 Ella Washington also hung a drawing by George Washington of the room’s chimney, as well as a print of Wakefield on the Potomac, George Washington’s birthplace

The room changed little until 1912 when Harrison Howell Dodge, superintendent for the MVLA, worked to reevaluate the evidence for the room’s appearance. The walls were painted green to match the top layer of the wallpaper fragment found in 1869.10

Below the top green layer of the wallpaper fragment, another layer of yellow wallpaper drew the attention of the MVLA in Yellow Room, 1933, looking towards the east wall. Courtesy of the Fred W. Smith Library.the 1920s. In 1928, this evidence, together with the documentary evidence mentioning a yellow room in Martha Washington’s will and a 1796 memorandum by Washington’s farm manager11, prompted the Regent to order the room repainted and it has been called the Yellow Room ever since.12 By 1933, its furnishings represented a more ‘colonial revival’ look with Windsor style chairs, quilted bed cover, and printed cotton curtains. Guidebooks from the 1920s and the 30s assured visitors that the rooms upstairs “represent the correct type of the colonial period.” 13

In its continuing commitment to historical accuracy, the MVLA subsequently consulted with various experts on period furnishings, fabrics, wallpaper, and paint. On the advice of such experts, the MVLA had the walls papered in yellow wallpaper with a green and white pattern that matched the green woodwork in 194114 and again in 1963. Researchers found possible remnants of the house bell system (used to alert and call the mostly enslaved servants to different rooms in the Mansion) between the Yellow Room and the Chintz/Nelly Custis Room in 1977.15 X-ray testing in 1985 confirmed these findings.16

The Yellow Room, c. 1982 - 2016The most recent restoration occurred in 1982. Matthew Mosca, paint historian and architectural conservator, recommended a new color scheme based on paint analysis conducted in 1979. The room received reproduction yellow wallpaper, a contrasting border, Prussian blue painted woodwork, and reproduction chintz curtains and bed hangings.17 A local group of quilters donated its services to create the new bed quilt in honor of the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth.18 A chest of drawers purchased by George Washington in 1757 became the centerpiece of the restoration. (Figure 6) In her will, Martha Washington made a special bequest of the chest to her oldest granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, who in 1792 etched her name on a pane of the glass in the window overlooking the Potomac.

As one of the few rooms visitors walk through, the Yellow Room requires regular maintenance and repair. Research continues to be to determine the best interpretation and historically accurate presentation for the space.

 

Deborah Farthing

University of Maryland, Baltimore County

 

Notes: 

1. Memo by Morley Williams, April 21, 1937, Morley J. Williams Collections, Box 2, Folder 6, “Misc. Notes”

2. Elizabeth Bryant Johnston, Mount Vernon Visitor’s Guide, (Washington, D.C., Gibson Brothers, 1876).

3.  Restoration Files, Letter from Ann Pamela Cunningham to Nancy Wade Halsted, 11 May 1869, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Archives of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon, VA.

4. Johnston, Mount Vernon Visitor’s Guide.

5. Lydia Mattice Brandt. First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington's Mount Vernon in the American Imagination (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 69.

6. An Illustrated Handbook of Mount Vernon (Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies Association, 1912).

7. Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May, 1896 (New Haven, CT: The Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor Press, 1896), 42.

8. Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Held at Mount Vernon, May 19th, 1887 (New York: Pillsbury, 1887), 19.

9. Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Held at Mount Vernon, May, 1889 (New Haven, CT: Tuttle, Morehouse & Taylor, printers, 1889), 20.

10. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, held at Mount Vernon-on-the-Potomac, Va., May 9 to 19, 1912, 31, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library.

11. Mount Vernon Historic Structures Report, (Mesick, Cohen, & Waite Architects, February 1993), 589.

12. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, held at Mount Vernon-on-the-Potomac, Fairfax County, Virginia, May Tenth to Eighteenth, Nineteen Twenty-Eight, 17, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library. 

13. An Illustrated Handbook of Mount Vernon.

14. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, May Eighth to Sixteenth, Nineteen Forty-one May 1941, 35-36, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library.

15. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, Nineteen Hundred and Seventy-Seven, and the Director’s Monthly Reports, November 1976 through October 1977, pg 34, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library.

16. Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, Nineteen Hundred and Eight-Five; Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Mount Vernon Inn, Inc., and the Director’s Monthly Letters, November 1984 through November 1985 (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1985), 235.

17. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, Nineteen Hundred and Eight-Two; Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Mount Vernon Inn, Inc., October 1982, and the Director’s Monthly Letters, November 1981 through October 1982, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library.

18. Restoration Files, Minutes of Council of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, held at Mount Vernon, Virginia, Nineteen Hundred and Eight-Two; Minutes of the Annual Meeting of the Mount Vernon Inn, Inc., October 1982, and the Director’s Monthly Letters, November 1981 through October 1982, Series 1, Buildings, Box 11, Folder: Yellow Bedroom, 1791-1982, Washington Library.

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