How Did the Washingtons Use This Room?
Curator Adam Erby discusses George and Martha Washington's front parlor.
The 2017-2018 restoration of George and Martha Washington’s front parlor is now underway. One of the most elaborately finished rooms in the house, the front parlor served as the primary entertaining space in the Mansion for most of the Washingtons’ lives.
Through fine architectural features, artwork, and furnishings, the room was a means by which the Washingtons reinforced their elevated social status as a couple, as well as George Washington’s prominence in the social and political landscape. Nearly every important politician and dignitary who visited the Washingtons was entertained in this space, from the Marquis de Lafayette to Thomas Jefferson. The space was primarily identified with the lady of the house, and here Martha Washington presided over the tea table and showed off her family through the many portraits that she had commissioned and had hung on the walls.
More than thirty years have passed since the room was last completely restored. New forensic analysis of the architecture and significant documentary discoveries have combined to reveal more about the appearance and evolution of the room than was previously known. The rediscovery of a ledger kept by the Fairfax family of Belvoir plantation provided documentary evidence of the original furniture in the room, furniture that was purchased in London and given by George William Fairfax to his close friend George Washington.
While none of the original pieces survives, the curatorial team is working to replicate the Fairfax-Washington furniture based on comparable period examples. The original upholstery fabric—a highlight of the room—is documented as being a silk and worsted wool damask dyed “Saxon blue,” a bright and vibrant color that curators are working to replicate.
The last comprehensive conservation of the room’s paneling occurred more than half a century ago, and the current work addresses problems identified in recent years. Earlier restoration efforts used techniques that prevent the paneling system from expanding and contracting in response to natural seasonal changes in humidity. They also obscured small details of moldings that made the room a showpiece.
During the course of the work, the architecture team is removing several panels for conservation, thereby providing access to the earlier architectural features predating the current paneling (installed between 1757 and the early 1760s). In addition, the architecture team reanalyzed the previous generation of paint analysis and determined that the room was painted a cream color during George Washington’s life rather than the current blue. At the conclusion of this project, the room will be repainted cream using hand-ground pigments replicating the original. The architecture team will also address needed repairs to the ceiling and windows, as well as conserve the mantel, overmantel, hearth, and floors.