In the late 1770s, the first phase of construction established the basic structure of the north wing of the house. Master builder Going Lanphier and his men worked under the oversight of George Washington’s estate manager, Lund Washington, while George Washington directed affairs via letters from his Continental Army headquarters. By the end of 1779, the north wing was enclosed, the Venetian window was installed, and some interior finishing may have been undertaken. Here work stalled until the end of the war due to Washington’s absence and the difficulty of procuring skilled labor during wartime.
When Washington returned from the army on Christmas Eve 1783, he found the north wing an empty shell lacking interior woodwork. During this period, Washington corresponded extensively with a new acquaintance, Samuel Vaughan, about the latest developments in English domestic architecture. Vaughan had recently emigrated from London and was well versed in English fashions, including the delicate neoclassical plasterwork and vivid paint schemes favored by the stylish architect and designer Robert Adam. Work completed in the New Room between 1784 and 1787 included: putting up lath and plastering the walls; creating and installing plaster ornament; installing a doweled wood floor, cornices, and moldings; painting; and installing door hardware and firebacks.
By the end of 1787, the room was finished and awaiting furnishings. Washington returned from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in September. He would have about a year and a half to enjoy his New Room prior to departing again to accept the presidency in April 1789. Unfortunately, we have little information on how the room was furnished during this initial period of use. An admiring description, written by Philadelphia mayor Samuel Powel in October 1787, lavished high praise on the room, but made no mention of any furniture:
“at the east [sic] End of the House is a magnificent Room Sixteen feet high perhaps thirty Seven by Twenty Eight feet, with a window to the North & South [sic], a venetian Window to the East [sic]. The Chimney piece is of Italian Marble with Columns of Sienna Marble & very handsome bas relief Tablets of white marble relative to rural Affairs…. The Room is the whole height of the House. The Ceiling is coved & richly ornamented in a light pleasing Taste.”
The elegant marble mantelpiece, a gift from Vaughan, occupied pride of place in the center of the long wall, opposite the Venetian window. It was topped by three pieces of Worcester garniture, also sent by Vaughan.
When the Washingtons returned to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797, the New Room was fitted out almost completely with new furnishings, making it “new again” more than two decades after construction began. Of the items listed in the room in Washington’s probate inventory, all but a handful had been acquired during or even after the presidency. Two matching sideboards and a set of two dozen side chairs, for example, were purchased from Philadelphia cabinetmaker and retailer John Aitken just as Washington’s second term was ending.
The history of the north wing’s construction, decoration, and furnishing highlights why Washington called it the “New Room.” Not only was it the last room to be added to the Mansion, it was also stylistically the most up-to-date. Throughout the last quarter-century of Washington’s life, it was continually new: newly framed in the 1770s; newly fitted out in the 1780s with decorative plasterwork, woodwork, paint, and flooring; and newly furnished in the 1790s. The term “New Room” was thus not simply a chronological descriptor. The room’s name signaled its most important function: to act as the Mansion’s showplace, a testimonial to its owner’s gentility, position, and good taste.
- Susan P. Schoelwer, Curator