The first measured drawings of Mount Vernon published in the United States. J. C. Halden et al., The Georgian Period, Being Measured Drawings of Colonial Work, vol. 6 (American Architect and Building News Co., 1900), plate 33. Courtesy of Google Books. Mount Vernon’s distinctive cupola; white, green, and red color scheme; and especially its long, square-columned piazza appear on houses in neighborhoods across the country. By duplicating or adapting these highly recognizable architectural elements, contemporary homeowners and real estate developers visually tie their homes to George Washington, American history, and more general values of patriotism and tradition.  

The impulse to copy Mount Vernon’s famous features began in the nineteenth century as an architectural expression of the popularity of George Washington’s house and larger trends in American design. By the late 1870s, borrowing from historic European and even Colonial American styles was very fashionable among Gilded Age architects and their wealthy clients.1 At the same time, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association made the house continually available for tourists and potential admirers for the first time in its more than 200-year history. The MVLA repaired the mansion’s iconic piazza and filled its empty rooms with period furniture, textiles, and decorative arts to return it “to what it was, under the watchful care of the Great Chief.”2 Professional photography, postcards, and guidebooks further informed the public about the building’s architecture and on-going re-interpretation. Popular publications followed suit by illustrating Mount Vernon and heralding it as the best example of Colonial American domestic architecture. The magazine American Architect and Building News published the first measured drawings of the building in a volume available for purchase in 1900, finally providing exact dimensions that fans could adapt to contemporary buildings.3

The Orchard (the residence of James L. Breese), McKim, Mead and White (architects), Southampton, New York, 1906 in Barr Ferree, American Estates and Gardens (New York: Munn and Company, 1904), 174. Google Books. Elite New York-based architects were the first to use these sources to emulate Mount Vernon’s architecture in new, Colonial Revival residences. Theodate Pope Riddle chose a shortened version of Mount Vernon’s piazza to decorate Hill-Stead, a house she designed for her parents in Farmington, Connecticut with McKim, Mead and White at the very end of the nineteenth century.4 The firm used the piazza as well as Mount Vernon’s Palladian organization in the Orchard, a house for a wealthy New York stockbroker on Long Island. Published in glossy design magazines and praised by critics, such glamorous houses fueled interest in copying Mount Vernon for new dwellings for all budgets.5 By the 1910s, publications aimed at middle-class Americans pictured houses with Mount Vernon-style piazzas as examples of the “Southern” style of American architecture.6

The increasing popularity of replicating Washington’s house in a variety of contexts also drove the migration of the Mount Vernon-inspired home from tony New York suburbs to middle-class neighborhoods nationwide. Millions saw full-scale replicas of Mount Vernon at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and at the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia.7 The legendary piazza adorned college dining halls and dormitories, campgrounds, hotels, and even a design for women’s prison in the 1920s.8 With the excitement over the opening of Colonial Williamsburg in the same period, more Americans than ever were becoming interested in adapting early American material culture to their modern lives. 

The "Jefferson" in Sears, Roebuck and Company's 1932 Homes of To-day catalogue. Sears Archives.As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth in 1932, the nation’s leading mail-order home manufacturer built several high-profile replicas of Mount Vernon and began marketing the first pre-fabricated version of the mansion. Sears, Roebuck and Company built full-scale reproductions of Mount Vernon as the United States’ official pavilion at the 1931 Colonial and Overseas Exposition in Paris and again the next year in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Produced, shipped, and constructed in a matter of weeks, the buildings promoted the company – and America’s – efficiency, ingenuity, and patriotism at the height of the Great Depression. The replicas also advertised the “Jefferson,” a two-story, white-brick house with Mount Vernon’s trademark piazza and Chinese Chippendale balustrade (removed from Mount Vernon in 1936) for sale in Sears’ 1932, 1933, and 1937 Modern Homes catalogs. Available as a kit that included everything from lumber to nails, appliances, and fixtures, the Jefferson could be constructed on any site.9

Although the “Jefferson” was one of Sears’ more expensive models, the translation of Mount Vernon’s architecture to an easily digestible and reproducible residential design ushered in a host of imitators. Mail-order home retailer the Aladdin Company first published the “Kingston,” a one-story, two-bedroom white cottage with a simplified piazza “for those who love a porch,” in 1941.10 Kansas-based the Garlinghouse Company sold plans for a two-bedroom house similar to the Kingston for just $12.50 beginning in 1940.11 The Ladies’ Home Journal published a special booklet in 1937 with plans for a Mount Vernon-inspired house complete with ideas for interior decorating. It was careful to state that the house was “not a copy...It is the Mount Vernon that we would like to live in now.”12

Made even more famous by such “replicas” in the twentieth century, Mount Vernon’s architecture continues to inspire contemporary house plans. Although some homebuilders may explicitly seek to tie their designs to George Washington and his famous home, others simply repeat a body of architectural features that have become ubiquitous in American domestic architecture.

 

Lyida Mattice Brandt

University of South Carolina

 

 

Notes:

1. Richard W. Longstreth, “Academic Eclecticism in American Architecture,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 55-82; Richard Guy Wilson, Dianne H. Pilgrim, and Richard N. Murray, The American Renaissance, 1876-1917 (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1979).

2. Ann Pamela Cunningham, “Mount Vernon: To the Officers and Members of the MVLA of the Union,” Mount Vernon Record 2, no. 4 (October 1859): 84.

3. J. C. Halden et. al., The Georgian Period, Being Measured Drawings of Colonial Work, vol. 6 (American Architect and Building News Co., 1900), 44-48 and plates 33-35.

4. James F. O’Gorman, Hill-Stead: The Country Place of Theodate Pope Riddle (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010); Lisa Pfueller Davidson and Julia A. Sienkewicz, “Hill-Stead (Alfred Atmore Pope home and estate),” Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS CT-472).

5. Barr Ferree, “Notable American Homes – ‘Hill Stead,’ the Estate of Alfred Atmore Pope, Esq., Farmington, Conn.,” American Homes and Gardens 7, no. 2 (February 1910): 42-51; Henry H. Saylor, “The Best Twelve Country Houses in America: The Home of James L. Breese,” Country Life in America 27 (March 1915): 46-9.

6. C. Matlack Price, “Painting the Outside of the House,” House Beautiful 43, no. 3 (February 1918): 127; Henry H. Saylor, ed., Inexpensive Homes of Individuality, rev. ed. (New York: McBride, Nast, 1915), 16.

7. Virginia built Mount Vernon replicas as their state pavilions at the 1893 and 1915 world’s fairs. The Metropolitan Philadelphia branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) built a Mount Vernon-inspired cafeteria and “hostess house” at the 1926 exposition.

8. For example, Mount Vernon replicas appeared in the designs for campuses at Lanier University in Atlanta (1917, never completed) and at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia (1926); West Virginia 4-H built a Mount Vernon cafeteria in Jackson’s Mill (1926); hotels include the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (1923-24) and the Lowell Inn in Stillwater, Minnesota (1927). For the Mount Vernon-inspired women’s prison, see Alfred Hopkins, “Prisons and Prison Building,” Architectural Forum 28 (May 1918): 189-93.

9. Sears Archives, http://www.searsarchives.com/homes/1927-1932.htm.

10. Aladdin Readi-Cut Homes, Annual Sales Catalog (1941), 15.

11. L. F. Garlinghouse Co., Inc., Garlinghouse All American Homes (1940), 19.

12. Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1937. See also Leland Roth, “Getting the Houses to the People: Edward Bok, the Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Idea House,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 4 (1991): 187-96.

Bibliography:

Brandt, Lydia Mattice. First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016.

Reiff, Daniel D. Houses from Books: The Influences of Treatises, Pattern Books, and Catalogs in American Architecture, 1738-1950. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Rydell, Robert. All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876-1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Schweitzer, Robert and Michael W. R. Davis. America’s Favorite Homes: Mail-Order Catalogues as a Guide to Popular Early 20th-Century Houses. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1990.

Wilson, Richard Guy. The Colonial Revival House. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2004.

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