George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, built a modest one and a half story farmhouse there in 1735. Washington’s elder half-brother Lawrence lived at the property from 1741 until his death in 1752. George Washington began leasing the property in 1754 and although he did not inherit it outright until 1762 , he expanded the house in 1758, raising the roof to make the Mansion two and a half stories high. In 1774, he added the north and south wings, the cupola and piazza to create the structure we see today.
When George Washington's father, Augustine, moved his family to the property in 1735, it was called Little Hunting Creek Plantation. In the early 1740s, during the War of Jenkins' Ear, Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s eldest half-brother, served as a militia officer at the Battle of Cartagena. Lawrence Washington inherited the Little Hunting Creek Plantation in 1743 and changed the name to Mount Vernon in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon, his commanding officer.
At 11,028 square feet with two and a half stories and a full cellar, the Mansion dwarfed the majority of dwelling houses in late 18th-century Virginia. Most Virginians lived in one- or two-room houses ranging in size from roughly 200 to 1200 square feet; most of these houses could have fit inside the 24x31 foot New Room. The ceilings of the Mansion vary in height—the average height on the first floor is 10’ 9”, while on the third floor it is 7’3”.
Before Washington began construction work in 1774, he executed a design drawing showing how he intended the west front of the Mansion to look. The drawing shows the façade as completely symmetrical with the front door and cupola on the center axis, with the windows balanced to either side of it. But in truth, the door and cupola do not align, nor are the windows symmetrically placed. The construction of the stair in 1758 pushed the door to the north and a window south out of the passage and into the small dining room. This break with architectural ideal is a good example of the value Washington placed on practical solutions to challenging design questions.
Aerial view of the bowling green side of the Mount Vernon mansion. Study the façade closely and you’ll notice it’s not perfectly symmetrical. (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
View of the cupola with its iconic dove of peace weathervane
George Washington commissioned a weathervane for the Mansion’s new cupola while he was presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. In his order to Philadelphia architect Joseph Rakestraw, Washington specified that the weathervane should “have a bird…with an olive branch in its Mouth…that it will traverse with the wind and therefore may receive the real shape of a bird.” Rakestraw constructed the weathervane from copper with an iron frame and lead head. Unfortunately, because of the increased air pollution around the Washington, D. C. area, the original dove of peace had to be permanently removed in 1993. Today an exact replica rests in its place, while the original weathervane is displayed in the Donald W. Reynolds Museum.
Example of rustication at Mount Vernon – wood simulating stone.
Rustication is a technique designed to make a wooden house appear to be constructed from stone by beveling the edges of the siding boards to resemble individual blocks of stone. The siding was painted and sand was thrown onto the wet paint, creating a rough stone-like texture. Washington first rusticated the Mansion in 1758 to make it appear constructed of structural sandstone blocks, which were more expensive than wood or even brick. In doing so, Washington preserved the house his father built, while making it appear in the same league with other more substantially-built—and expensive—houses.
The two-story porch facing the Potomac River is one of the Mansion’s most iconic architectural features and was designed by Washington. In the 18th century, it was extremely rare to see such a grand façade on a private residence. Washington’s design for the two-story piers copies the pilasters on the exterior of the New Room’s Palladian window, although at a much greater ratio of width to height. The piazza provided an additional living space and is widely copied on homes throughout America today.
The river side of the Mount Vernon mansion showing its famous piazza (Rob Shenk)
The south and north additions to the Mansion were built right up against the outside of the 1758 house. The 1758 siding was not removed and it is still visible in some of the hard-to-reach crawlspaces of the house. You can see the original rusticated siding and its sand paint which has been protected for over 230 years, as well as evidence for second-floor doors that led to porches on top of the one-story “closets” that were removed in the 1770s. The piazza roof covers part of the original shingles on the east slope of the 1770s roof. Since the piazza roof was built just a year after the New Room addition roof was installed, the preserved shingles are brand new and still have their original red paint!
The Mansion basement played a key role in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets and although there is no tunnel leading from it, it was an extremely important part of life in the Mansion. The cellar was used for a variety of purposes and was divided into several rooms. One room, closest to the kitchen, has a large fireplace and was used as a dining area for the housekeeper and other white servants as well as to heat food before it was served to the Washingtons. When Washington died in 1799 there were a variety of items stored in the basement including wine, sand for rustication, and potatoes.
The west front of Mount Vernon by the artist Edward Savage. This painting, circa 1787-1792, is the earliest known image of the Mansion (Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)
The Washingtons had many visitors at Mount Vernon, particularly after the Revolutionary War as Washington’s political stature grew. Many of these visitors were close friends, family members, or neighbors, but others were unknown to the Washingtons; in 1797, Washington commented about a recent dinner “at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces; come, as they say, out of respect to me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well?” The steady pace of visitors continued after Washington’s death in 1799. Martha Washington subsequently moved out of their shared bed chamber to a small room on the third floor. A stove was installed to warm the room, which was described as a “cramped attic space.” Her presence on the third floor also afforded her some privacy from the steady stream of visitors who continued to travel to Mount Vernon.