Front Parlor Form and Function: Architectural Clues
Photo Credit: Gavin Ashworth

by Caroline Spurry, Architectural Historian

The architecture of a room, particularly its form and finishes, can provide a great deal of information about the function of the space within a building. Form and function in gentry houses experienced a marked evolution in the 18th century. The evolution of Mount Vernon’s Mansion, and specifically its front parlor, paralleled many other high-status houses of the period.

Illustration from The works of Mr. Thomas Brown, serious and comical, in prose and verse, Vol. 1. London, 1730.  Courtesy of Eighteenth Century Collections Online.  While a bed is not visible, the scene is evocative of a multi-function hall.

In the early-18th century, many houses had only two rooms, a public room, the hall, and a more private one, the chamber. The hall typically functioned as a multi-purpose space where eating, working, sleeping, and entertaining all took place. Over time, social conventions, such as the accumulation of wealth and status and the spread of slavery, began to dictate the physical separation not only between public and private activities, but also between people of varying status levels. Householders increasingly differentiated public rooms with finer, more elaborate architectural details to display their means. As the century advanced, the multiple functions of the hall were split out into new types of rooms. The public entertaining function principally came to occur in a room called the parlor. By the mid-18th-century, passages and dining rooms also became common, as sites of access control and hospitality, respectively; and, separate rooms were dedicated to sleeping, often on upper floors. Later, divisions between formal parlors and family parlors also appeared; the latter was used to entertain more intimate associates.

The difference between Lawrence Washington’s and George Washington’s probate inventories—detailed, room-by-room listings of household furnishings compiled shortly after their deaths in 1752 and 1799, respectively—illustrates how an architectural plan evolved with societal changes. Before George inherited Mount Vernon, the one story with a garret house contained a “Hall” and a “Passage & Parlour,” as well as seven other distinct spaces, but no so-named dining room. While a later blog will discuss inventory contents in detail, it is worth noting that the Lawrence-era “Hall” houses far more objects than any other room, consistent with a multi-purpose space. 

In contrast, George Washington’s 1799 probate inventory names more than 30 distinct spaces in the house (then comprised of two stories with a garret and cellar) including a “Dining Room,” “Front Parlor,” “Little Parlor,” “Passage,” and “New Room” on the first floor, as well as six rooms for sleeping on the second floor alone. It is likely that the footprint of the Lawrence-era “Hall” overlapped the footprint of the George-era “Front Parlor,” but additional investigation is necessary before confirming that assertion. Regardless, the 1799 house no longer includes a “Hall” and has clearly expanded and subdivided into numerous public and private spaces.

George Washington's correspondences, coupled with physical investigation, also illuminates the evolution of the Mansion’s finishes. Starting in 1758, Washington began to expand the Mansion and added updated architectural finishes to many of the rooms, including the front parlor. The most elaborate details were found in the first floor entertaining spaces, and the level of detail became progressively simpler on the upper floors.

The front parlor has the most complex architectural details: elaborately carved floor-to-ceiling paneling and chimneypiece, complex chair rail and cornice molding profiles, classically-inspired door surrounds, and delicate neo-classical ceiling ornament. These elegant, refined details tell us that the room functioned as a formal, public space into which high-status visitors were invited. The presence and architectural fitment of this formal parlor also indicates the Washingtons' financial and social status, as only the wealthy had such a space.

Garret room on the third floor.On the other end of the spectrum, the third floor garret rooms have very simple mopboards and no cornice or chair rail.

The Blue Room on the second floor was restored in 2017.The second floor details fall somewhere in between, with mopboards, chair rails, cornices, and mantels that have simple molding profiles – plainer than the front parlor, but more elaborate than the garret rooms. 

The inventories, correspondence, and physical fabric demonstrate that, over time, the Washingtons’ residence evolved from a smaller, less elaborated house (albeit still large for the period) to a more highly decorated and differentiated mansion whose architecture provided visible clues to its use and functions.   

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