Curious why there was scaffolding erected along the west front of George Washington's Mansion from April-October of 2019? 

Mount Vernon's preservation experts answer some of the most frequently asked questions.

Why was scaffolding across the west elevation of the Mansion?

Scaffolding was needed to allow Mount Vernon’s preservation staff to restore the west front of the Mansion. During the project, up to 28 layers of paint and sand were removed and all of the architectural elements were accessed and conserved. These elements included the siding, windows, window and door trim, and shutters. Once repairs were completed, the siding was repainted and sanded.

Visitors had a rare and thrilling opportunity to see the Mansion’s original wood siding emerging from underneath generations of paint – just as George Washington saw it in the 18th century.

How long was the scaffolding up?

The scaffolding was up April through October 2019 and has now been removed.

Could visitors go up on the scaffolding?

As a necessary safety precaution, visitors were not permitted on the scaffolding. Guests were asked to avoid touching the scaffolding when entering and exiting the building.

What would scaffolding during Washington’s life have been like?

Reconstructed late 17th-century scaffolding, Courtesy Historic St. Mary's City.

Reconstructed late 17th-century scaffolding, Courtesy Historic St. Mary's City.

Beer Street, 1751, William Hogarth, British Artist and Engraver

Beer Street, 1751, William Hogarth, British Artist and Engraver

As it is today, scaffolding was an essential part of building construction, maintenance, and deconstruction in the 18th century. Scaffolding was built of wooden posts that were set into the ground about four feet from the building. The posts were held straight by securing their tops with horizontal struts that extended to the building. To create stages or work platforms, additional struts were secured every six feet up the posts to allow workman to work up the wall; loose boards were laid upon the struts to create work areas. To make the erection and dismantling of the scaffolding faster, all of the connections between the various parts were accomplished by tying them together with cords or thin ropes.

Interestingly, when brick buildings were being constructed, bricks were left out of the wall and the horizontal struts of the stages were inserted into the empty holes, which are called “putlog holes.” After the building was completed, the scaffolding would be dismantled from the top down, and as the struts were removed from the wall, the holes were usually filled in with bricks, but not always. If you have a sharp eye, you can sometimes pick out the putlog holes in the walls of an 18th-century brick building.

What is the exterior of the Mansion made out of?

While the exterior might appear to be made of stone, it is actually wooden siding that has been worked to achieve the look of stone blocks by first beveling the siding boards (a process called rustication). To make this illusion even more convincing, sand is thrown onto wet paint to create a rough texture like the texture of stone.

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Why did Washington want to coat the house in sand?

Luckily, we have correspondence authored by Washington explicitly stating why he wanted to coat the house in sand. In a letter to White House architect William Thornton, dated October 1, 1799, Washington noted, “Sanding, is designed to answer two purposes—durability, & representation of Stone; for the latter purpose, and in my opinion a desirable one; it is the last operation, by dashing, as long as any will stick, the Sand upon a coat of thick paint. This is the mode I pursued with the painting at this place, & wish to have pursued at my houses in the City.”

How much of the siding is original?

The vast majority of the siding is original, on all elevations of the Mansion. Over the years, there have been many repairs, but there does not appear to have been much wholescale siding replacement. Now that the paint has been stripped the preservation team will be able to closely investigate the siding, looking at any remnants of early primer, nail evidence, tool marks, seams, and wood type, with a goal of distinguishing early versus replaced elements.

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Wasn’t the Mansion recently repainted? How often does the building need to be painted?

Before 2019, the west front was last repainted and sanded in 2011, however, the paint and sand were applied over the top of the many previous layers of paint and sand. While the frequency of painting and sanding has varied over time, our most recent goal has been to paint and sand every five years. The 2011 paint campaign utilized new paint and sand, so we monitored performance very closely; the new combination held up better than previous generations.

The problems seen at this time relate to the failure of the older paint layers beneath the 2011 sand and paint, so it has become necessary to strip the siding down to bare wood. Regular painting and sanding are imperative in order to keep the surface weather-tight and protect the siding and underlying structural frame from deterioration and damage from exposure to the weather. At the same time, we need to ensure that the layers of paint and sand have not accumulated to the point of delamination (falling off), which also compromises that weather-tight seal.

Does any of the Washington-era paint survive? When was the last time the Mansion was stripped to bare wood?

Since the west front was fully stripped of paint in 1956 and 1980, down to the bare wood, there is little surviving Washington-era paint on this side. On the east front, however, in the upper south corner (at the study end of the house), there is an area where we believe the earliest paint layers still survive. This area is constituted by the uppermost 10 courses from the north side of the back stair hall window to the south edge of the elevation.

What color will the west elevation be after it is repainted? How do you know that the color is appropriate?

Close up of the west front after the 2019 restoration work, MVLA.

Close up of the west front after the 2019 restoration work, MVLA.

The base paint color will continue to be a creamy white or off-white typical of lead-whites of the 18th century. This color will be visible on the window frames, while the siding boards will receive the additional coating of sand. The sand is slightly darker than the paint, giving the finished surface a warm color evocative of stone. These colors are based on laboratory analysis of the early paint and sand on surviving siding boards, as well as Washington’s own words.

In November 1796, Washington requested an experiment to determine whether white beach sand versus off-white or cream-colored, pounded sandstone would be better for repainting and sanding the Mansion. He also described the exact process for sand-painting: (1) a coat of white lead ground in oil and allowed to dry; (2) a second, thicker coat of white lead in oil; (3) while the second coat is still fresh, throw the sand or pounded stone against the paint until it is covered; and (4) allow to dry. Later, while describing this sanding process in that same October 1, 1799, letter to William Thornton, Washington reported that the winner of the 1797 experiment was the pounded sandstone, particularly as it was “rare to meet with Sand perfectly white, & clean.” The 1797 painting and sanding campaign appears to be the last carried out by Washington before his death in 1799.

How is the process of sand-painting different than regular painting?

The primary difference between sand-painting and regular painting is that, with sand-painting, sand is literally thrown (by hand) on top of the final coat of wet paint.

How many coats of paint and sand will be applied to the siding?

Our sand-painting process replicates that used in the 18th century: one coat of an oil primer, followed by one thick coat of oil paint. While the final coat of oil paint is still wet, sand will be thrown (by hand) at the siding until there is an even application. Then a second layer of paint will be applied to the siding and while it is still wet another layer of sand will be thrown.

What work is being done to the windows?

The window sashes will be systematically removed by Mount Vernon’s preservation team, working with extreme care to disturb as little of the original material as possible. Depending on the condition of each window, the conservators will stabilize loose joints, conserve panes of glass, reinforce previous repairs, or install new glazing to form a weather-tight seal. After the work is complete and the windows are restored, they will be reinstalled. 

How many windows are original? If the windows are original, is the glass also original?

Mount Vernon’s preservation carpenter removing the original ox eye window.

Mount Vernon’s preservation carpenter removing the original ox eye window.

We believe that most of the double-sash windows date to the 18th century; most of the glass in the window sashes, however, has been replaced. The project will give us an opportunity to confirm or revise those assumptions once the sashes are removed and we perform in-depth physical investigation. There was a replica ox eye window in the west front’s pediment; but the original was reinstalled during the 2019 project.

What work is being done to the shutters?

Part of a shutter and pintle on the Mansion.

Part of a shutter and pintle on the Mansion.

The shutters, which date to the 20th century, will be removed, so that the preservation team can assess them and determine the level of repair needed. At the least, they will be stripped of paint and then repainted and rehung. Any needed repairs will be executed prior to repainting. In addition, many of the pintles (angular pieces of metal used to hang doors, shutters, or gates) on which the shutters are hung have become loose over time. Those pintles will be re-secured to the underlying framing, so that the shutters are also held in place more securely.

Will you work on the other elevations of the Mansion?

Yes; after the west front work is complete, the other sides of the Mansion will undergo the same process of paint stripping, assessment, repair, repainting, and sanding.

Why isn’t the west elevation symmetrical?

Prior to George Washington’s expansion of the house, in the late 1750s to early 1760s, the house’s west front was likely symmetrical. There is physical evidence in the framing to suggest that the locations of some of the first-floor windows south of the central door were moved during that building campaign. The impetus may have been to provide additional light to the dining room, making it environmentally more similar to the front parlor.

If you look at the west elevation, you will notice that the front parlor windows line up directly with the corresponding cellar windows below, where the dining room windows are positioned further south than the cellar windows below. During this project, through physical investigation, we hope to learn more about this question.

Restoring Mount Vernon’s Mansion and Outbuildings

Mount Vernon is one of the best documented and most complete examples of an estate from early America, but discovering, analyzing, and interpreting the extraordinary mass of available evidence is an ongoing process.

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