John Augustine Washington III became the owner of Mount Vernon in 1850. Unable to afford the estate's maintenance, he offered it for sale in 1851. After the Commonwealth of Virginia and the federal government turned him down, Washington agreed to sell the Mansion and 200 acres of adjoining land to the Ladies' Association in 1858.
In 1853, Louisa Cunningham observed the dilapidated Mansion from a boat in the Potomac River. She lamented to her daughter, Ann Pamela Cunningham, that she “was painfully distressed … Why was it that the women of this country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?"
Accepting this challenge, Ann, a mild-mannered 37-year-old from rural South Carolina, founded the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1853, with the express purpose of saving Washington's home for future generations. In order to raise $200,000 - an incredible sum in the pre-Civil War period - to purchase the rapidly declining Mansion from the Washington family, Miss Cunningham and her original board of 12 determined women organized a campaign that would captivate the entire nation. In doing so, they planted the seeds for the preservation movement in America.
With a civil war looming, Ann Pamela Cunningham realized that in order to avoid regional discontent and to establish a broad fundraising base, the campaign to save Mount Vernon would have to be national in scope. Her idea was to establish a network of supporters, all working under the direction of a core group of ladies, each of whom would represent a given state. A total of 13 women, with Cunningham as the Regent, and the other serving as Vice Regents, made up the first council.
Edward Everett, one of the greatest speakers of his age, tirelessly traveled the nation, delivering two-hour orations on the first president, and donating his lecture fees to the purchase of Mount Vernon.
This bird's-eye view of the Mount Vernon estate shows the 200 acres purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association - the core of what had been George Washington's 8,000-acre plantation.
With the success of the fundraising campaign behind them, Cunningham and the Vice Regents began the daunting task of preserving the site. The first priority was to stabilize and repair the dilapidated buildings.
Ann Pamela Cunningham, 1861
...we need not have anything to do with politics - ought not to have - no sectional divisions should affect our position - we must bide the storm, and then the officers would meet and pledge themselves to continue in harmony to carry out the purposes for which we are a chartered body, and show to the world that we at least had profited by the warning counsels of Washington.”
Between 1861 and 1865, as the Civil War raged, restoration stopped at Mount Vernon. Soldiers from both sides visited the site, but they were required to lay down their arms before touring.
The Vice Regent for New Jersey from 1868 until 1891, Nancy Wade Halsted challenged the Ladies to furnish each room in the Mansion. Eighteenth-century pieces were to be used wherever possible, with more recent Greek Revival and Victorian furnishings filling the gaps. Many decades would pass before the Association could furnish all rooms with original Washington pieces or very similar examples.
Twelve founding Ladies of the Association, representing their home states, pose on the piazza in 1873 with the famous Houdon bust of George Washington. Miss Cunningham, first Regent of the Ladies' Association is seated to the right of the bust. The other ladies pictured are Vice Regents in the Association's governing council, a structure still in place today.
Ann Pamela Cunningham to the 1874 Mount Vernon Ladies' Association Council announcing her retirement as Regent
Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge; see to it that you keep it the home of Washington. The Mansion and the grounds around it should be religiously guarded from change - should be kept as Washington left them. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress. Those who go to the home in which he lived wish to see in what he lived and died.”
Phoebe Apperson Hearst served as Vice Regent for California from 1889 to 1918. Mrs. Hearst was an especially generous contributor to the Mount Vernon cause, funding construction of a stone wall along the river shore to protect against erosion, and supporting the installation of Thomas Edison's electrical system.
The contrast between the appearance of the new room before 1890 and now reveals the Association's ongoing quest for historic authenticity. This room was once the principal space to display "relics," ranging from the prized Houdon bust of Washington to a monumental equestrian portrait by Rembrandt Peale. In 1981 this Mansion room was the first to be restored to the colors selected by George Washington.
Thomas Edison designed and installed Mount Vernon's first electrical system in 1916. Only after considerable debate did the Vice Regents agree to Edison's proposal, finally being persuaded that the new technology for lighting would be safer than kerosene lamps.
Keenly interested in preserving Mount Vernon, inventor and industrialist Henry Ford donated a new fire truck to the Ladies' Association in 1924 and encouraged the installation of fire hydrants and alarms. The Ford Motor Company continues to provide vehicles for Mount Vernon's motor fleet and has sponsored many educational programs, facilities, and traveling exhibits.
In 1929, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association placed a commemorative marker noting the site of the 200-year old slave cemetery. We believe this marker to be the earliest of its kind on a historic plantation. Despite this oﬃcial recognition, the burial ground lay unattended in dense underbrush for years.
Frances Payne Bolton, Vice Regent for Ohio from 1938 until 1977, spearheaded the effort to protect George Washington's view across the Potomac River. In 1974, President Gerald Ford authorized funds to establish Piscataway Park on the Maryland shoreline opposite Mount Vernon.
Since the 1950's, most outbuildings, including the quarters of the enslaved workers, have been restored, furnished, and interpreted for visitors. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association remains committed to protecting all features and structures related to George Washington's original plantation.
As the population of the nation's capital expanded rapidly following World War II, new developments began to threaten one of Mount Vernon's most beloved aspects - George Washington's remarkable view across the Potomac River. Led by Frances Payne Bolton, the Vice Regent for Ohio and a United States Congresswoman, the Association garnered the support of the National Park Service, Maryland neighbors, and environmentalists nationwide to preserve the opposite shoreline for future generations. Efforts to protect the view - which spans 80 square miles - continue today.
In 1979, Mount Vernon launched new research to discover and restore the interior paint colors of the Mansion. In some cases more than 25 layers of paint were analyzed. Over a two-year period, the Mansion was completely repainted according to the findings of expert investigators.
In the early 1980s, a group of citizens began a concerted eff ort to honor the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. In 1982, a reporter from The Washington Post broadly publicized evidence of the forgotten slave cemetery. By 1983, these efforts resulted in action when the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association dedicated a new memorial, which was designed by students attending the architecture school at Howard University.
The Association, in partnership with Black Women United For Action, now holds an annual ceremony at this spot in tribute to the generations of enslaved people who lived and worked here.
Mount Vernon's full-time archaeology program has been conducting research here since 1987. Archaeologists study artifacts uncovered in excavations to learn more about daily activities of the Washingtons and the many people who lived and worked at Mount Vernon.
Queen Elizabeth II and Mabel Livingstone Bishop, Mount Vernon's Regent, presided at the re-dedication of the wharf in 1991. Restoration of the wharf, build by the Ladies' Association in 1860 near the site of one of George Washington's original landings, was supported by donations from citizens of Oregon, the Regent's home state.
Inviting guests of all ages to learn more about Washington's progressive agricultural practices, the four-acre Pioneer Farm opened in 1993 and serves as a "living" classroom. The centerpiece of this popular demonstration farm is a replica of Washington's innovative 16-sided treading barn.
George Washington designed an innovative 16-sided barn to streamline the time-consuming processing of wheat. In 1870 the treading barn was near collapse. Mount Vernon's carpenters completed a replica and opened it to visitors in 1996, after five years of intensive research and construction. Major support was provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Washington's gristmill, located on his Dogue Run Farm, was a major commercial operation and provided an important source of revenue. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association has operated the mill as a working replica since 2002.
The President of the United States presented the coveted National Humanities Medal for service to the nation to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. From left to right at the 2003 Oval Office ceremony: James C. Rees, President & CEO of Mount Vernon (1994-2012); James M. Walton; former Regent Eugenia Seamans; President George W. Bush; Regent Ellen Walton (1999-2004); First Lady Laura Bush; former Regent Mabel Bishop; former Regent Carew Lee; and Clarence M. Bishop.
From left to right at the ribbon cutting for the Ford Orientation Center: James C. Rees, President & CEO of Mount Vernon (1994-2012); Gay Hart Gaines, Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (2004-2007); Sandy Ulsh, then-President of the Ford Motor Company Fund; and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough.
The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center introduces guests to George Washington's remarkable life. Opened in 2006, this expansive facility dramatically advanced the Mount Vernon experience, allowing for a more thorough journey through Washington's unparalleled story.
Completed in 2007, this replica slave cabin located at the Pioneer Farm helps share the story of the enslaved communities on the outlying farms of Mount Vernon.
Washington's distillery was one of the largest producers of whiskey in America. After several years of archaeological excavations, research, and construction, the distillery complex opened in 2007. These efforts were supported by the members of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
To support his expansive farm, Washington had a blacksmith shop built just steps from his iconic home in 1755. This detailed reconstruction was completed in 2009 and has allowed the critical trade of blacksmithing to return to the estate.
Staying true to the Association's mission, preservation of Washington's home and the surrounding landscape continues. In 2011, an authentic Upper Garden reopened to guests after considerable archaeological and historical investigation.
The New Room's 2013-2014 restoration was one of the most extensive in the Mansion and brought back the original grandeur of the space that George Washington spent years designing.
George Washington to Jame McHenry, April 3, 1797
I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil, and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.”
More than 200 years after the general wrote of his dream for a library, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association built the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon with the patriotic support of over 7,000 donors. Erected on the estate, this impressive 45,000-square foot facility was opened on September 27, 2013.
More than 1,200 people assembled at the Washington Library for its grand opening. From left to right on the ceremony stage: Dr. Douglas Bradburn, Founding Director of the Library; Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian, David McCullough; Curtis G. Viebranz, President & CEO of Mount Vernon; Ann H. Bookout, Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (2010-2013); and Fred W. Smith, Chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, which provided the lead gift for the Library campaign.
The Library, the only of its kind dedicated to our first president, safeguards original books and manuscripts according to the highest standards. It positions Mount Vernon as the preeminent center of learning about George Washington, where scholars and researchers come together to explore new thoughts and uncover fresh insights about the Founding Era. The Library also serves as a center for educational outreach and leadership training, employing Washington's extraordinary life, achievements, and character as inspiration.
In 2014, Mount Vernon launched a project to thoroughly document the locations of individual burials at the slave cemetery, located on an outcrop of land, south of George Washington’s tomb. The goal of this multi-year survey is to commemorate the lives of those free and enslaved individuals who lived and died at Mount Vernon by creating a map showing the exact location of individual grave sites.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association embraces the challenge of engaging future generations with the continuing relevance of George Washington's leadership and character. With the help of patriotic donors, Mount Vernon intends to restore George Washington to his proper place in American hearts and minds.
Mount Vernon continues to be managed by an active board comprised of women representing different states across the nation. Because the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association does not receive state or federal funding, it depends on private support to fulfill its mission of education and preservation.