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“Rustication” is a manner of treating the exterior of a wooden building to make it appear as if it is made of stone. The effect is achieved by cutting and beveling the wooden siding boards at regular intervals to simulate stone bocks, and by applying sand to the surface to imitate the rough texture of stone. In the 18th century the treatment was most often used to add distinction to isolated structural elements, such as around doorways and windows. At Monticello, for example, it is used on the wall beneath the entry portico in which the main door to the house is located. At Mount Vernon, however, all four walls of the Mansion are rusticated, and in Virginia at least such extensive use appears to have been unusual. In New England there are many surviving buildings from the period that include at least one fully rusticated façade, and a few that use rustication on three or more walls. Scholars have speculated that George Washington may have seen fully rusticated buildings during his trip to New England in 1756, and that those examples influenced his decision to use the technique at Mount Vernon when he expanded the house in 1757-58. At least one dwelling with a fully rusticated front façade that dated to the mid-18th century (but which no longer survives) was located only a few miles from Mount Vernon near Dumfries, Virginia, however. Therefore, the presumed connection between Washington’s use of the treatment and his seeing New England examples may not be valid.
The best description of the process of applying sand to the beveled siding boards is contained in a letter from Washington to William Thornton, dated October 1, 1799:
“Sanding is designed to answer two purposes, durability and presentation of Stone; for the latter purpose, and in my opinion a desirable one; it is the last operation, by dashing, as long as any will stick, the Sand upon a coat of thick paint. This is the mode I pursued with the painting at this place (Mount Vernon), and wish to have pursued at my houses in the City. To this, I must add, that as it is rare to meet with Sand perfectly white, and clean; all my Houses have been Sanded with the softest free stone, pounded and sifted; the fine dust must be separated from the Sand by a gentle breeze, and the sifter must be of the finess (sic) the sand is required and it is my wish to have those in the City done in the same way. If the stone cannot be thus prepared in the City, be so good as to inform me, and it shall be done here and sent up. It must be dashed hard on, and as long as any place appears bare.”
Numerous original rusticated boards survive on the Mount Vernon Mansion, including one that has been preserved for more than 200 years in pristine condition within the north wing of the house. When the wing was added in 1775 a portion of the north gable wall was enclosed within the crawl space above the Large Dining Room. One rusticated siding board, cut into blocks and with remnants of its original sand finish, survives in place.