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Servants' Hall Construction
The construction of the Servants’ Hall took place between 1775 and 1776 and was overseen by Lund Washington, George Washington’s cousin and resident manager. As Washington was away from Mount Vernon during most of this period, attending the Continental Congress in Philadelphia and assuming command of the Continental Army, Lund was responsible for carrying out George’s wishes for the plantation. Correspondence from Lund to George (George’s correspondence to Lund does not survive) reveals important details about the new building under construction. Lund wrote on September 29th, 1775:
...I have pulled down the old Wash House, and Brick Layers are about the underpinning for the new one, which I shall raise soon after they are done . . . I find the Wash House is framed to have two doors in front - both together one to open in each Room. Stone says you have directed him to do so- it will differ from the kitchen which shows but one Door in front.
The new building was on the site of the old Wash House, as his letter suggests dismantling of that building appears to have been necessary before construction commenced. After removing the old Wash House, Lund labored for some time under the idea that the new building was also meant to be a wash house, a misunderstanding that took several months to rectify. By October 15th 1775, the frame of the building was standing, with Lund writing:
I think the House, which you say I call the Wash House, by Which I suppose you do not intend it for one, would have looked more Uniform in its outward appearance, to have had one Door in the middle as the Kitchen opposite has & the other in the Gable End, which might have been done by making the Room next the Great House to it as well as there is from the Other End to the Kitchen a Gable End door would have looked best - the House is now raised.
The two doorways planned for the front side of the building bothered Lund from the time he started construction. He obviously believed that it should be symmetrical with the front of the kitchen, across the courtyard, which only had one door. In November, Lund was still troubled about the doors and apparently continued under the misapprehension about the intended function of the new building:
. . . the Wash House is going on - the Chimneys is now Carrying up, I have had a great Inclination to alter the Doors, but am unwilling to make an alteration in anything that you have directed- it will not look well being different from the kitchen.
Towards the end of November, an evidently unseasonably cold month, the work of the brick masons was still underway, with Lund reporting:
The Chimneys of the Wash House are not done, the weather is cold & freezing so that it goes on slow, I want to get them finished, one of them is just out of the Top, & the other up almost to the joice - the House is shingled & partly weather Boarded . . .
The misunderstanding about the purpose of the building appears to have been put to rest by Washington’s response to this letter, as Lund wrote in December:
I shall alter the Servts Hall - If it is not intended for a Wash House one of the Chimneys is rather larger than it should be, it was done by Mrs. Washington's Direction, but as they have the same outward appearance I know of no inconvenience that will arise from it.
Use of the Servants' Hall
This outbuilding is identified as the “White Servants appartment [sic]” on the plan of Mount Vernon drawn by Samuel Vaughan in 1787, and is identified in a similar manner in the diary of Nellie Custis, Washington’s step-granddaughter. In December 1792, Washington reiterated the purpose of the building, in a letter to his farm manager, Anthony Whiting:
I have engaged an elderly man . . . he must go in the house opposite the Store; as the Servants Hall must be kept for that purpose unappropriated to any other uses.
After Whiting’s death in this same year, Washington engaged a new manager, William Pearce. Unlike Whiting, Pearce had a family and thus required more living space. In a letter on October 6, 1793, Washington invited him to use the Servants’ Hall as his residence:
The right wing to my dwelling house as you possibly may have noticed, and heard called the Hall, (being kept altogether for the use of Strangers) has two good rooms below (with tiled floors) and as many above, all with fireplaces. This will accommodate your family (being a larger house) . . . and by being here, you will have the use of my Kitchen, the Cook belonging thereto, Frank the House Servant, a boy also in the House.
Pearce found the interior arrangement of the building – apparently separated into two apartments – inconvenient and asked to make changes; Washington agreed to his manager’s request, with some provisos, in a letter of April 13, 1794:
By your letter of the 9th . . . I find you wish to open a communication between the lower rooms, in what is called the Servants Hall, and to make a closet therein: against the latter I have no objection at all, nor against the first provided the doing it does not cut away a brace, and thereby weaken the house. If the chimneys project into the room (as I think they do) a closet may be conveniently made in one of the recesses, between the jamb and the side of the house; and if two closets are not made, the one that is put up, would look better and be more out of the way, in the back side, than front of the room. However, unless I was to examine it with a particular eye to this measure, I may be mistaken in my judgement of it; and therefore leave it to you to fix it where it shall be found most convenient.
In the fall of 1793, Washington again reiterated his desire to have a room or apartment that would be solely for the use of the servants of visitors, even though Pearce occupied the Servants’ Hall at that time:
If you should succeed in getting an Overlooker for the outdoors Carpenters . . . whether he be a married, or a single man, he must not occupy the rooms in the store house; these, while you remain in what is called the Servants Hall, must be kept for Gentlemens servants, and my own while I am on a visit to Mount Vernon. When you remove to the Ferry (if you mean to do so) and the house you are now in, is restored to its former use, a single man might, in that case, occupy the rooms in the store house in the Manner Mr. Whiting did, but it would not be very convenient for a married man (especially one with children) to be there.
By early June 1796, the Servants’ Hall was no longer occupied by Pearce’s family and Washington wrote instructions to Pearce regarding the building:
Let the Rooms in the Servants Hall, above and below, be well cleaned; and have the beds and bedsteads therein put in order; after which have a good lock put on the door of the west room, above, and order Caroline, or whoever has the charge of those rooms, to suffer no person to sleep, or even to go into it, without express orders from her Mistress or myself.
Apparently, however, between the time of this letter and March 1800, when an estate inventory was prepared following Washington’s death, some changes in the building furnishings had occurred as no beds were inventoried within the Servants’ Hall. The contents of the building at the time of the inventory consisted of six camp seats, two walnut tables, two presses (furniture for storing clothes), six fire buckets and a pair of andirons. The lack of beds suggests that at this time, the Servants’ Hall was not prepared to accommodate visitors.
From the time that the estate was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1858 until the 1980s, the Servants’ Hall was used for administrative purposes, housing the director’s office for a number of years.
Restoration of the Servants’ Hall in 1997-1998 returned the building to its 1799 appearance. Today this building serves as an introduction to the Mansion tour. Archaeological investigations within the building were undertaken as part of the restoration program. This excavation uncovered remains of the building's partition wall and foundations of the earlier Wash House. A small trash pit located outside the Wash House was full of artifacts dating to before the 1775 construction of the Servants' Hall.