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Creating Identity

"I shall begrudge no reasonable expense that will contribute to the improvement and neatness of my farms, for nothing pleases me better than to see them in good order … nor nothing hurts me more than to find them otherwise." George Washington, 1793

George Washington’s earliest design and building efforts at Mount Vernon reflected his desire to assume a place among Virginia’s colonial aristocracy. Later, his reputation made and his country’s independence secured, Mount Vernon’s appearance began to mirror Washington’s ideas about the new American nation. For over four decades, much of that time spent serving his country as soldier and statesman, Washington worked to expand and improve his beloved home. Mount Vernon’s enduring beauty is the product of a surveyor’s practiced eye and an architect’s imagination.

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s estate on the Potomac River, had been in the family since his grandfather obtained the tract in the 17th century. Washington’s father built the original house, and his half-brother Lawrence substantially rebuilt the residence in the 1740s. 

George Washington became the master of Mount Vernon in 1754, acquiring the estate shortly after Lawrence’s death. Washington retained the house he inherited from his brother, but enlarged and remodeled the structure during two major building campaigns. Even before his return from the French and Indian War in 1758, Washington directed that the house be raised from one-and-one-half to two-and-one-half stories. Changes to the interior were equally ambitious, entailing repainting, wallpapering, adding wooden paneling, reconfiguring the staircase, and rearranging the second-floor rooms. For most of the time when the house was expanded in 1758-59, Washington was hundreds of miles away, leading colonial soldiers against the French and their Indian allies. The young officer hired John Patterson to oversee the renovations and the two men kept in close contact through letters, a pattern that would be repeated over the next three decades as Washington’s commitment to public service kept him away from home for long periods at a time.

In 1774 Washington began to make preparations for a second sweeping alteration of his home. Once again he enlarged the house, by adding wings to either end, but he also demolished and replaced many of the outbuildings, and redesigned the landscape according to currently fashionable English precepts. He incorporated a variety of architectural embellishments into his design of the house, including the unusual two-story piazza on the riverfront, the cupola, and a pediment over the main door on the west façade.

Conceived by Washington, the façade of Mount Vernon incorporated the existing structure within a design that unified old and new elements. Drawn at the time of a major expansion, the simplicity of the only known surviving elevation of the mansion in Washington’s hand suggests a conceptual design. One major difference between the drawing and the final result lies in Washington’s decision to move a number of windows to better suit the interior spaces. This resulted in a far less symmetrical spacing and affected the alignment of the cupola, pediment and main door.

Entry into the privileged world of Virginia’s colonial aristocracy required both substance and style. Mount Vernon would become Washington’s most public expression of his desire to secure a place within that world. Inspiration for some of the elements of Mount Vernon’s design undoubtedly came from existing structures. The house of Thomas Carlyle of Alexandria, with its imposing stone façade, fashionable architectural embellishments, and elaborate furnishings, could very well have served as a model for Washington to emulate.  Belvoir, the nearby home of George Fairfax, probably was an even more influential model, and the layout of that estate bears a remarkable similarity to an early plan of Mount Vernon.  During a trip to New England in 1756, Washington may have visited the Governor’s residence in Massachusetts and the Redwood Library in Rhode Island. Both structures could have provided inspiration for a number of architectural elements Washington eventually incorporated into the design of his home: the cupola, double height pillars framing a principal façade, and wooden siding cut to imitate stone blocks.