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A Gentleman's House

"Washington was his own architect and builder, laying off everything himself. The buildings, gardens, and grounds all rose to ornament and usefulness under his fostering hand." Washington Parke Custis

The design of Mount Vernon was the direct result of George Washington’s vision. Taking ideas from a variety of sources, Washington adapted and blended the disparate elements to meet his personal goals and to take advantage of the natural advantages of the site overlooking the Potomac River. The result has been described as one of the most beautiful estates in all of America.

Combining style and substance, Mount Vernon’s large dining room became the most highly decorated, most public space in the mansion. Washington used the room to make a strong statement not only about his place among Virginia’s elite, but also about the qualities of virtue and independence so necessary to the new republic.  Agricultural motifs, selected for their symbolic value, reflected Washington’s belief in the virtuous nature of neo-classical republicanism and recalled the legend of Cincinnatus, the victorious soldier who gave up power and returned to his plow at war’s end. The imposing double-height ceiling, unusual cove ceiling, elaborate decorations, and fashionable furnishings gave visitors ample evidence of their host’s social standing, as well. Washington’s ambitious goals for the large dining room are summed up in a letter written while he was away during the Revolutionary War, in which he directed that, “I would have the whole executed in a masterly manner.” This attention to detail was manifested in the elaborate measures Washington undertook to ensure that the room was a fashionable and seamless presentation. It took years to gather together the proper materials and, in particular, the skilled workmen to carry out the design. Much of the ornament was made of a composite material, a new method of decorating wood surfaces that allowed greater detailing than wood or plaster, while costing less. The walls were covered in paper, painted in a vibrant green, known as “vertigris,” that was the height of fashion for the period. An elaborate marble mantle presented as a gift by Samuel Vaughan, the English admirer who also gave Washington the plan of the estate he had drawn during his visit, provided a suitable centerpiece on the wall opposite the palladian window.

Another English pattern book that served as a model for work at Mount Vernon was Williams Pain’s The Practical Builder. A plate from that book almost certainly was the source for the design of the plaster ornamentation in the ceiling of the small dining room. That ceiling was executed by an unknown craftsman in 1775 as part of the enlargement and refinement of the house begun that year. According to a letter to George Washington reporting on the progress of the plastering, Lund Washington mentioned that the plan for the ceiling had been recommended by William Sears, another craftsman who was carving the ornament in the mantel in the same room.