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Image of a Gentleman

"The garden, the plantations, the house, the whole upkeep, proves that a man born with natural taste can divine the beautiful without having seen the model. The General has never left America. After seeing his house and his gardens one would say that he had seen the most beautiful examples in England of this style." Julian Niemcewicz, 1798

With his place in Virginia’s aristocracy secure, Washington turned his enormous energies toward redefining the image of a virtuous citizen. Martha Washington’s inheritance of L8,000 in 1773 enabled the Washingtons to pay off debts accumulated over the previous decade in the acquisition of thousands of acres of land, dozens of slaves, and a wide variety of household goods. This new found financial security, combined with the growing conflict over the issue of British taxation, heightened Washington’s sensitivity to the question of personal liberty. From this perspective, the rebuilding of Mount Vernon seems best understood as a conscious gesture, an affirmation of its owner’s status as a free man, unburdened by debt and unawed by the dictates of petty government officials. As such, Mount Vernon eventually became a tangible expression of the personal independence of virtuous American citizens in the early years of the new republic.

In the second rebuilding of Mount Vernon, begun in 1775, Washington seems to have purposely struck out on his own to design a house that was both remarkable and original. The new design had a number of unusual elements – the open quadrant arcades, the cupola, and the great piazza are all features that ignored the dictates of fashion. Each of these features served utilitarian functions – either helping to cool the building, providing shelter from the elements, or taking advantage of cool breezes to improve living conditions. But each architectural element was an important piece of the overall design as well.

It appears that the piazza and the transparent quadrant wings, which Washington referred to as the “colonnades,” were original solutions for providing functional spaces that took advantage of the natural beauty of the site. Designed to unite indoor and outdoor spaces, the piazza is the most distinctive feature of the mansion. Built in 1777, the piazza serves practical as well as aesthetic purposes, providing a comfortable outdoor living space with a magnificent view, while helping to architecturally “finish” the unusually long axis of the mansion’s east front. Originally paved with locally made brick, Washington contemplated a variety of options for upgrading the piazza’s appearance. Eventually, he replaced the bricks with more fashionable and costly white flagstone pavers from England. By 1799, the inventory of Washington’s estate lists 30 Windsor chairs “in the piazza,” including 24 green Windsor chairs crafted in 1796 by Robert Gaw of Philadelphia. Although relatively inexpensive, chairs of this type were considered appropriate for the estates of the Virginia gentry, and were often found on porches and in passages and gardens.

The colonnades linked the two main outbuildings with the mansion. They provided shelter from the elements while incorporating the smaller structures into a larger symmetrical design. Building the colonnades with two open sides appears to have been Washington’s idea, a design that allowed the Potomac vista to be seen through the many arched openings. The cupola served a utilitarian function, as a ventilator allowing cooling drafts to be drawn through the house and out its open windows. But like the arcades and the piazza, the cupola served an important design function, as well as made a symbolic statement of its own. The asymmetry of the west façade was disguised by the strong vertical axis provided by the cupola, in concert with the centrally located pediment and main door. Since cupolas were most often associated with public buildings like the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, Washington may have appropriated the feature as a final affirmation of his commitment to liberty and American independence. The weathervane, made in the form of a bird with an olive branch in its beak, which Washington commissioned and had attached to the cupola spire, was a tangible symbol of his hopes for the success of the new nation.

The appearance of the spaces surrounding the mansion changed along with the look of the building itself. Washington’s evolving taste in landscape design moved from rigid geometric shapes to a “naturalistic,” English-inspired pleasure ground. One of the tenets of the new aesthetic was to take advantage of the natural beauty of the site. Accordingly, the brick walls, which were meant to keep intruding animals out of the gardens, were carefully planned not to impair the sweeping vistas that Washington so admired. Samuel Vaughan, an amateur architect from England and a great admirer of General Washington, prepared a detailed plan of Mount Vernon during a six-day stay at the plantation in 1787. Vaughan later presented the plan to Washington as a token of his esteem. Together, Mount Vernon’s landscape and façade offered an image of prosperity and importance, and exemplified Washington’s belief in the power of appearance.