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Rustication

Rustication is a manner of treating the exterior of a wooden building to make it appear as if it is made of stone. The effect is achieved by cutting and beveling the wooden siding boards (at Mount Vernon the boards are made of pine) at regular intervals to simulate stone bocks, and by applying sand to the surface to imitate the rough texture of stone. In the eighteenth century the treatment was most often used to add distinction to isolated structural elements, such as around doorways and windows.

At Mount Vernon all four walls of the mansion are rusticated. In Virginia such extensive use appears to have been unusual. In New England, however, there are many surviving buildings from the period that include at least one fully rusticated facade, and a few that use rustication on three or more walls. At least one dwelling with a fully rusticated front facade that dated to the mid-eighteenth century (but no longer survives) was located only a few miles from Mount Vernon near Dumfries, Virginia.

In 1796, as Washington was making preparations for rusticating the mansion, he wrote to his farm manager James Anderson with specific instructions on how to proceed. In the letter, Washington referred to having used beach sand in the past, but also wanted Anderson to experiment with obtaining the sand from pounding the local sandstone.1 In a letter written to William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capital, Washington explained the purposes of rusticating the Mansion: "Sanding is designed to answer two purposes, durability and presentation of Stone; for the latter purpose, and in my opinion a desirable one; it is the last operation, by dashing, as long as any will stick, the Sand upon a coat of thick paint."2

Numerous original rusticated boards survive on the Mount Vernon mansion, including one that has been preserved for more than 200 years in pristine condition within the north wing of the house. When the wing was added in 1775 a portion of the north gable wall was enclosed within the crawl space above the New Room. One rusticated siding board, cut into blocks and with remnants of its original sand finish, survives in place. Analysis of the paint layers on the board indicates that it was painted and sanded twice between 1758 and 1775.

Dennis J. Pogue, Ph.D.

Notes
1. "Memorandum, 5 November 1796," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 35, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931).

2. "George Washington to William Thornton, 1 October 1799," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 37.