The will of George Washington's grandfather, Lawrence Washington, reveals that tenants were already living at the Little Hunting Creek Plantation later to be known as Mount Vernon in 1698. The dwelling acquired by George Washington after the death of his elder half brother was one and one-half stories high with a central hall and four small rooms on the first floor. The nucleus of the present structure was built by Augustine Washington in 1735, who resided on the Hunting Creek Plantation with his second wife Mary Ball and their young family, the eldest of whom was George Washington.
In 1759, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis (later, Martha Washington). During the preceding period of several years the mansion had been enlarged. The house was raised from one and one-half, to two and one-half stories and was extensively redecorated. While the work was in progress, George Washington was absent on military duty and the builder was supervised by a neighbor, William Fairfax of Belvoir, owner of an adjoining estate.
Invoices of the period list the hardware and tools necessary to complete such a project, all of which had to be imported from the England. This pre-Revolutionary War house had its dependencies, gardens, and planted areas. The outbuildings were fewer in number and smaller. No ground plan or comprehensive description of the country seat at this stage in its development has survived. However, an entry in Washington's diary reported that the house had four principal dependencies, and that they were connected to the main house by "Pallisades" on low brick walls.
In 1773, George Washington made plans for additions to each end of the Mansion and ordered materials from England to complete the project. These additions were part of a larger plan that included replacement of existing outbuildings with larger structures, creation of service lanes, the development of the bowling green, and enlargement of the formal gardens. In May 1775, before the interior of the first Mansion addition was finished, George Washington departed to attend the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. There he was commissioned Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and except for brief visits en route to and from Yorktown in 1781, Washington was away from Mount Vernon for more than eight years.
During Washington's absence his manager and distant cousin Lund Washington continued the improvements. Under Lund's supervision the addition to the north end of the Mansion was raised and enclosed. In addition, the wing buildings and connecting colonnades were built. On one occasion a British man-of-war, the HMS Savage, appeared off Mount Vernon and demanded provisions. Lund met their demands, and the property was spared, although seventeen slaves used the opportunity to escape to try to claim their freedom.
General Washington surrendered his commission to Congress in Annapolis in December of 1783, and returned homeward with two of his former military aides, reaching Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. Much remained to be done to the Mansion before it would be completed. However, little was accomplished in 1784; public affairs still claimed Washington's attention. Lund Washington's wartime accounts indicate that the piazza was erected in 1777, but there was a delay in finding stone flagging for the pavement. Stone was imported from England and laid in 1786. The final embellishment of the house, a weather vane for the cupola, was not added until the autumn of 1787.
The Mansion's design had much in common with other houses of the period, yet was unique in many ways. It owes its charm more to harmony of composition than to the beauty of its component parts. The influence of fashionable Anglo-Palladian designs are apparent at Mount Vernon in the proportions of the wing buildings and in the bowling green, which corresponds to the palace green. Numerous similarities to other contemporary houses might be identified, but there is nothing to indicate that they were more than coincidences of style or common antecedent. Washington had access to eighteenth-century English books on the design of country houses, which influenced the Mansion's design. For example, the Palladian window was derived from design inspirations found in these books.
Many artisans were employed at Mount Vernon, but their work was limited in scope. Through the long years of development, overall planning was the province as well as an important occupation of George Washington. One guest noted of Washington, that "It's astonishing with what niceness he directs everything in the building way, condescending even to measure the things himself, that all may be perfectly uniform."1
The Mansion features a prominent, high-columned piazza, extending the full length of the house. The exterior finish of the Mansion and of the courtyard dependencie was another unusual feature. The siding was beveled to give an appearance of stone. Sand was then applied to the freshly painted surface. This treatment, called rustication, pre-dates the Revolutionary War and was used elsewhere in Virginia. However, no precedent has been found for as extensive use as at Mount Vernon.
1. Quoted in William Spohn Baker, Washington After the Revolution ( Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1898), 45.
Dalzell, Jr., Robert F. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell. George Washington’s Mount Vernon: At Home in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Greenberg, Allan. George Washington, Architect. London: Andreas Papadakis, 1999.
Reiff, Daniel D. Houses from Books: Treatises, Pattern Books, and Catalogs in American Architecture, 1738-1950. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.
Augustine Washington moves his family to the Little Hunting Creek Plantation for three years. Tree-ring dating of the Mansion has proven that a house built by Augustine in 1735 forms the nucleus of the current house.
Augustine Washington dies leaving the Little hunting Creek Plantation to George’s older half-brother Lawrence.
Lawrence Washington dies, passing his plantation, now called Mount Vernon, to his daughter, and then his wife. George leases the plantation from Lawrence’s widow.
George Washington begins an expansion of Mount Vernon as part of his climb through Virginia society. He raises the one-and-a-half story 1735 house to a full two stories, building the elaborate walnut stair and adding ‘closets’-one story wings-on the north and south sides. He rusticates the wood siding to make it appear to be cut stone.
Washington marries Martha Dandridge Custis, bringing her and her children to reside at Mount Vernon. Just days before their arrival, Washington writes to his plantation manager: “You must have the House very well cleand... the Stair case ought also to be polishd in order to make it look well.”
Upon the death of Lawrence Washington’s widow, George Washington becomes the owner of Mount Vernon.
Washington builds the first of his planned expansions to the Mansion. This addition to the south end contained a study for Washington and, on the second floor, a bedroom suite for the Master and Mistress of Mount Vernon.
The Washingtons renovate their dining room. Carver William Sears executes an elaborate mantel taken from Abraham Swan’s The British Architect (Plates 50 and 51) and a craftsman known only as “the stucco man” creates a magnificent plaster ceiling copied from William Pain’s The Practical Builder (Plate LXII).
The north wing is built to contain an enormous one-and-a-half story room on the first floor. This room, called by Washington his “New Room” was intended to be a saloon a multi-purpose space given over to various forms of entertaining. The wing is constructed, but work on the interior does not begin until after the Revolution.
Work is carried out on the exterior of the house. The covered walkways linking the house to the Servant’s Hall and kitchen are built by carpenter Going Lanphier, and the pediment of the West facade is built. The piazza is constructed in 1777.
The cupola is added to the Mansion roof. In addition to giving the house a monumental appearance, it serves as a ventilator. When the windows of the house are open, hot air rises up the staircase and out the open cupola windows. This convection draws cooler air in through the windows of the lower floors.
Washington paves the piazza with stone pavers from Whitehaven, England, replacing the brick or tile pavement that had been used since 1777.
The interior of the New Room, which had been an empty shell since its initial construction in 1776-1778, is executed. Washington chooses the Neoclassical style, which features delicate plaster and composition ornament. The focal points of the room are a large tri-partite Venetian window in the north wall, a high curved ceiling and an elaborate marble mantelpiece given to Washington by his English friend, Samuel Vaughan.