Vice President, Media & Communications
MOUNT VERNON, VA – George Washington’s Mount Vernon has embarked upon a major restoration of the Mansion’s front parlor, formerly known as the west parlor– a space that most of the estate’s 1.1 million visitors experience every year. This restoration was sparked in part by the discovery of an 18th-century document that drastically changed the collective understanding of the front parlor’s furnishings at the time of George Washington’s death in 1799.
In 2013, Mount Vernon acquired a previously unknown ledger kept by George William Fairfax, the Washingtons’ friend and owner of the nearby Belvoir plantation. This ledger details an expensive suite of seating that the Fairfaxes gave to the Washingtons when they moved to England in 1774, which included a sofa and eight backstools, or chairs with upholstered seats and backs, covered in “Saxon blue” silk. This furniture occupied the Washington’s front parlor from 1774 until Martha Washington’s death in 1802, but it had long since disappeared.
“The front parlor sofa and chairs were some of the most valuable furnishings the Washingtons owned,” said associate curator Adam Erby. “By reproducing and reintroducing them into this space, we will be able to highlight the luxury of upholstered furniture and the importance of this space to the Washingtons.”
To investigate Washington’s front parlor, Mount Vernon’s historic preservation and collections team is utilizing a variety of methods and instruments, some as basic as raking light from hand-held flashlights to identify early tool marks or repairs, or magnets to find metal fasteners hidden underneath paint and putty. In other instances, the team is using more advanced technology, such as a thermal imaging camera or an endoscope attached to a tablet computer, to non-destructively examine cavities behind the paneling.
Microscopic analyses of paint, plaster, and wood have been undertaken to determine the material condition, composition and identify generations of change. Paint analysis has revealed that the color applied by the Washingtons during their last renovation of the space in 1797 was cream, rather than the bright blue that visitors to the Mansion would have seen in in recent decades. Once conservation of the architectural fabric is completed, the staff will paint the room this cream color.
The front parlor displays some of the most striking architectural features of any room in the Mansion. In the early 1760s, George Washington installed floor-to-ceiling wood paneling, classical door surrounds, an intricately carved mantel, and a plaster ceiling ornament. Work on this paneling revealed some surprises: the 1760s paneling was installed on top of an earlier plaster-and-lath wall surface and closed in a door to the adjoining family parlor.
During George and Martha Washington’s time, the front parlor served as the principal reception room in the Mansion. Visitors who wrote about the space included British Lieutenant John Enys in 1788, Irish writer Isaac Weld, Jr., in 1796, and Polish Count Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz in 1798, and as well as the Marquis de Lafayette.
Mount Vernon visitors can watch staff work in the front parlor during their tour of the Mansion. Mansion tours are included in estate admission. Work on the front parlor space is expected to be completed in fall 2018. For more information, please visit mountvernon.org/frontparlor.