For more than forty years, Washington used his plantation as a laboratory for his design and construction experiments. From the main house to the smallest outbuilding, Washington used his architectural skills in a quest to build his estate into a profitable enterprise. Seldom frivolous or monumental in format, Washington’s buildings reflect a practical sense of design, and a willingness to test the ideas he found in books as he searched for new and better ways to accomplish goals both practical and artistic.
Over the years, George Washington’s international reputation as a farmer has been overshadowed by his public feats as general and president. Washington experimented with the latest seed varieties, created complex crop rotation schemes, tried dozens of fertilizers, and designed a unique and innovative 16-sided barn. In his day, wheat was threshed by hand, using a flail, or it was “treaded out” by horses. Washington designed a “round’ barn specifically to accommodate treading of grain indoors, where it would be safe from inclement weather and could be kept more secure. The barn’s most innovative feature was its flooring, which was laid with a gap between the boards so that once the grain was separated from the stalk by the action of the horses’ hooves, it could fall to the floor below. There it was gathered and cleaned, then sent to Washington’s gristmill, two miles away, to be ground into flour. The result is a building that conceptually is as much a machine as architecture. A full-scale replica of the barn and its associated stables and corn houses were erected at Mount Vernon in 1996. Extensive documentary evidence, including a photograph of the barn taken just before it was razed in the 1870s, and Washington’s own plan showing the barn and its relationship to the surrounding buildings and fields, guided the reconstruction.
The open, airy design of the arcades and the piazza reflect Washington’s desire to incorporate the landscape as an integral element in the plan of the house. As far as can be known, both of these features were original to George Washington, and serve as examples of his innovative use of existing models to fit his specific needs.
Washington designed and built a large masonry structure that served as both a green house and slaves’ quarters. The green house took three years to complete as Washington refined the design. Several years later, Washington added one-story wings to either side. The new structures housed up to 60 slaves who worked as house servants and craftsmen at the Mansion House Farm.