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In 1856 Washington purchased an enslaved man, named Nathan Johnson, to serve as his “chief house servant.” Washington also purchased Johnson’s wife, Marietta, and their four children, all for the considerable sum of $2700. As Johnson apparently took over the primary responsibility for looking after the Mansion, it would make sense for the Johnson family to be domiciled in one of the outbuildings nearby. The discovery that two pieces of wood that were removed from the Gardener’s House during the restoration – a section of door frame and a modillion block from the exterior cornice – were marked in pencil with the date “1856” and the words, “Nathan house,” suggests that the Gardener’s House was renovated at that time to accommodate the Johnsons. After the Civil War Nathan Johnson returned to Mount Vernon and he worked for the MVLA as the keeper of the Mansion until his death in 1884. Nathan’s wife, Marietta, died just before the war, and he married another former Washington slave, Sarah Parker, soon after his return to Mount Vernon. Instead of living in the old Gardener’s House, the Johnsons appear to have lived in the Store House on the circle.
With the possession of the property by the MVLA the old Gardener’s House was pressed into service for a variety of functions. By 1886 the southern end of the structure had been converted into a “post office,” with direct access from the circle via the formerly blocked doorway. This means that the interior board partition must have been removed as well. A photograph that shows several individuals clustered around the south end of the building probably dates soon after the post office was installed. Interestingly, a sign attached to the building advertises that “canes” are “for sale.” Selling canes to visitors that were made from trees harvested on the estate was a means of raising money for the MVLA, as it has had been for the Washington owners before them. When Harrison Dodge was named Superintendent in 1885, one of the first things that he did was to discontinue the practice of selling the canes at the site of Washington’s tomb, which he deemed to be inappropriate. When the post office opened in January 1886, the cane sales appear to have been relocated to that site.
In 1893 a series of “repairs” are recorded as having been accomplished, which allowed the building to be adapted yet again, this time to serve as both domestic and office space for the Mount Vernon guard force. The MVLA had taken the step of hiring full time guards, both to protect the estate and to be stationed in the Mansion to answer visitors’ questions. According to Superintendent Dodge’s report to Council:
A partition was constructed in the front (south) room, dividing it as it was in Washington’s time, making thereby comfortable dormitories for two of the watchmen, thus concentrating the guards near the Mansion. The back room is used as the guard office, and there are located portable fire appliances, chemicals for the engines, the telephones, etc. The upper room in this building is used as an extra sleeping department.
Over the next 100 years, many additional modifications were made to the structure, including adding a restroom and “sick room,” and installing a variety of security paraphernalia. The building continued to support Mount Vernon’s security function until 2005, when the control room finally was relocated to a new building that had been constructed for that purpose adjacent to the Anne Pamela Cunningham Building. After the relocation of security, a careful restoration was begun on the building.