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Piecing Together 18th-Century Doors

The double doors leading from Mount Vernon’s piazza to the Mansion’s central passage serve as the gatekeepers to George Washington’s beloved home, granting access to Mount Vernon’s visitors and keeping the interior safe from the elements.

1954 double doors leading from Mount Vernon’s piazza to the Mansion’s central passage.
1954 double doors leading from Mount Vernon’s piazza to the Mansion’s central passage.
These overlooked architectural marvels have weathered over 60 years of devastating storms and heavy usage. The pair were built in 1954 from young, fast-grown pine trees that contained less strength-giving resin. The doors could have survived another 100 years in a less prominent location, but heavy traffic and exposure to the elements have shortened their lifespan. Mount Vernon’s architecture staff monitored their condition and determined the doors required replacement. In 2018, they hired carpenter Amy Harrington McAuley to make the new doors, using only the hand tools available to an 18th-century craftsman.

McAuley drove to Mount Vernon from Portland, Oregon, schlepping her collection of historic planes and chisels, plus a hand-sewn bag filled with saws— tools she has collected over decades building doors and windows for historic lighthouses, military forts, and ghost towns. These tools and her expertise enabled Mount Vernon’s architectural preservation staff to reconstruct the doors as they appeared in George Washington’s time at every step of their assembly.

Researching Their Ancestry

The original doors to the central passage are lost to history, but the architecture staff determined their appearance and construction through research. Architectural Historian Caroline Spurry studied archival reports, and Preservation Specialist Eric Litchford searched Mount Vernon’s extensive architectural study collection—aisles of boxes filled with retired structural fragments from the Mansion and outbuildings—searching for pieces of the original doors.

While he did not find these pieces, Litchford discovered fragments of an 18th-century door from an unknown location on the estate, as well as the predecessors of the 1954 doors. Based on their appearance, the team inferred the doors likely dated to the time of John Augustine Washington III, the last private owner of Mount Vernon. The architectural preservation staff conducted paint analysis on these doors to better estimate their age and learn more about the architecture of Mount Vernon after George Washington’s time.

Verifying Their Appearance

Both the 1954 doors and 19th-century doors are bi-leaf, meaning two doors were used in a single opening.
The staff suspected the original doors were likely bi-leaf as well, and they confirmed their suspicion after viewing a painting by British-American architect Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe visited Mount Vernon in 1796 and created a watercolor painting of the Washington family taking tea on the piazza, with the doors in the background. With the form of the doors settled, McAuley and the architecture team needed to nail down the details, a process begun by taking careful measurements of the doorway, the 1954 doors, and the 19th-century doors to understand the materials and techniques used by Washington’s carpenters.

The doors are a frame-and-panel construction, consisting of vertical stiles and horizontal rails joined with mortise and tenon joints to create a frame. This frame holds “floating” panels in place without nails, enabling the wood panels to expand and contract with variations in temperature and humidity.

Two vertical pieces called stiles and four horizontal pieces called rails make up the frame of each door. The locking mechanism is located in the widest rail, or the lock rail.

Crafting the Pieces

For this project, Mount Vernon’s carpenters, John O’Rourke and Dave Weir, selected large beams of old-growth yellow pine salvaged from a demolished mill. While pine is a soft wood, lumber from the type of ancient, slow-grown trees available to Washington was exceptionally hard and strong due to its high resin content. When resin-rich, old growth pine seasons, it is stronger and more durable than hardwoods like oak.
This strength and durability made it widely used in 18th- century buildings and flooring.

McAuley began by surfacing the lumber with a scrub plane, traversing the plank at a 45-degree angle, then pushing with the grain to smooth the surface. McAuley and Mount Vernon’s architectural conservator, Steve Stuckey, conducted a tool mark study on the doors throughout the Mansion in which they made rubbings of the doors with paper and charcoal, like tracing the writing on a gravestone. The subtle grooves shown in the rubbings informed McAuley’s tool choices by indicating which planes were used. Once the lumber was smooth, McAuley sawed them according to the frame’s dimensions and evened the edges with a jointer plane.

The stiles and rails fit together with 24 mortise and tenon joints, simple mechanisms that require careful planning and execution. McAuley measured the mortise’s rectangular opening and chiseled through the entire vertical stile. She cut the rails’ edges slightly smaller than the mortise to create the tenons. While carving the tenons and mortises, McAuley also sawed a groove along the entire length of the pieces where the panels would sit.

Planes shape wood by using strength to force the iron blade across the surface. From left: badger plane, two molding planes, and two dado planes.

A 19th-century jointer plane used for straightening edges.

Shaping the Profile

The moldings on modern doors are often a separate piece of wood glued onto the doors, but the Mansion’s doors are self-molded, meaning the moldings are carved into the door’s frame. By reviewing the moldings throughout the Mansion, the architectural preservation team decided on a profile for McAuley’s doors. Eighteenth-century carpenters chose decorative shapes that they would craft with molding planes. Since McAuley did not have a plane that matched the S-shaped molding, or ogee, adorning the Mansion’s doors, the team was forced to find a creative solution.

McAuley first drew the exact molding profile on cardboard, then stenciled the pattern on the rail. She cut two grooves and leveled them off into steps before establishing the curve with a round plane and a convex, or hollow plane. These guideless planes teeter if the carpenter’s hands are shaky, but McAuley’s skill created an identical replica of the S-shaped molding.

Assembling the Puzzle

The moldings on the edges of the stiles and rails meet in a 90-degree angle. In modern joinery, this corner would be created using a miter joint, for which each molding is cut at a 45-degree angle. The original Mansion door did not use miter joints; instead, the moldings on the rail were undercut to ride over the moldings on the stiles, an old technique called a scribe joint. Although McAuley knew about scribe joints, she had never made one before. To proceed, she reverse engineered the joint. She and Stuckey documented the joinery used on all of the Mansion’s doors and studied the 18th-century door fragment Litchford found in the architectural study collection to see details of the woodwork inaccessible while a door is intact.

Ultimately, McAuley ventured to North Carolina to consult an expert to learn the precise method to create the complicated joint. First, she measured and cut the desired angle through the molding, then she thinned the molding and gouged out a space for the stiles to fit snugly. By the end of the project, she had completed this process 60 times and had perfected her method and speed.

Once the frame was assembled, McAuley turned to the panels. Their large size required several boards to be glued together; a single large board would likely warp out of shape. She used planes to create the raised field at the center of each panel and the beveled edges, working a panel on all four sides and moving with and across the grain. Running a plane across the tough grain of the pine was an exhausting task that yielded beautiful results. After ensuring the panels fit, she fastened the frame together, wedging the tenons tightly and locking the joints with wooden pegs.

After approximately 450 hours of work spread across 36 days and consisting of countless miles paced while running hand planes along her workbench, McAuley completed the Mansion doors. Before they are painted and fitted, the preservation team must stabilize the Mansion’s frame. Through the generosity of donors, these doors will overlook the Potomac River for the next 100 years, granting future generations passage into the home of George Washington. While power tools could have completed the task in a quarter of the time, McAuley and Mount Vernon’s architecture staff chose the traditional process used by their 18th-century predecessors to create a more authentic product and to open the door for a fading craft to flourish.

By Kathryn Priebe with Thomas Reinhart

The molding is a prominent decorative feature that often covers the edges of two pieces of wood. The grooves in the center of each beam indicate where the panels will sit.

Amy Harrington McAuley with the completed doors.

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