The Yellow Room, a second-floor bedchamber located in the southeast corner of the Mansion’s central block, incorporates changes from significant periods in the Washingtons’ lives, from when George Washington first became the gentleman landowner of Mount Vernon to decades later, when his status as gentleman, military hero, and national leader was fully established.
From 1757 to the early-1760s, George Washington undertakes a large-scale expansion of Mount Vernon’s existing one-story plus garret house, raising the roof to add a full second story plus a third-floor garret. The second-story, reached by a grand staircase leading from the central passage, has five distinct rooms. The Yellow Room is located on the waterside of the house, in the southeast corner.
Martha Washington arrives at Mount Vernon in early April 1759, likely before the Mansion work is complete. With a larger house, the newlyweds can more comfortably entertain and accommodate family and other guests according to the style of living of British colonial gentry.
Prior to 1776, the woodwork in the Yellow Room is first painted a deep yellow with a dark gray mopboard, followed by a verdigris green with a black mopboard, and its walls are likely covered in wallpaper. Instead of the door opening that currently leads into the south wing of the house, the room may have had a window opening where the door now stands.
As the American Revolution gathers momentum, Washington adds wings to the south and north ends of the house. Construction of the south wing, begun in April 1775, prompts changes to the Yellow Room. The opening in the south wall is closed, a closet with two paneled doors is constructed, and a new mantel is installed. The mantel and other woodwork is painted a cream color. This shift seems to emphasize the classical nature of the architectural trim.
In June of 1775, Congress elects George Washington as commander in chief of the Continental Army; he spends the next eight years in the field, leading the American Revolution.
As Washington’s renown grows, Mount Vernon attracts a continuing stream of guests, including not only family, friends, and colleagues but also admirers and the merely curious. The Yellow Room and other second-story chambers see constant use as guest accommodations, witnessing not only the Washingtons’ ascendant status but also the people, movements, and connections that enlivened the bustling Mount Vernon landscape of the late eighteenth century.
In the 1780s, spaces throughout the Mansion were updated with fresh paint, wallpaper, and plasterwork. On September 7, 1786, Washington noted in his diary: “Began to Paper the yellow room this day—Majr. Washington & Thos. Green the undertakers—by the directions I received with the Paper from England.” Washington had purchased the wallpaper for the Yellow Room and other mansion spaces through agents in England. His farm manager, nephew Major George Augustine Washington, and the hired carpenter, Thomas Green, hung the paper.
Washington’s preparations for retirement include plans for updating Mount Vernon. He asks his farm manager William Pearce for room measurements, including for the “yellow room,” presumably so he can plan for new additions to the rooms, such as wallpaper. He also acquires a large quantity of new and fashionable engravings, including four landscapes that are later hung in the Yellow Room.
Returning to Mount Vernon in March 1797, the Washingtons find the house needing considerable attention, including painting, wallpapering, and whitewashing throughout. Washington complains, “I have scarcely a room to put a friend into, or to set in myself, without the Music of hammers, or the odoriferous smell of Paint.” This redecorating likely included freshening the Yellow Room’s woodwork with another coat of cream-colored paint and hanging new wallpaper. The transformation of a first-floor bedchamber into the Little Parlor also prompted the removal of the finest bedchamber suite in the house to the Yellow Room. This suite, originally acquired from England in 1758, included a yellow damask draped bedstead, chairs upholstered in yellow damask, and a serpentine mahogany dressing table.
Always interested in innovation, Washington installs “Rumford chimney-fireplaces” in several chimneys, including that in the Yellow Room. This firebox insert, invented in 1796 by Count Rumford, enabled more efficient, less smoky heating of rooms and could be tailored to existing fireplaces. Washington’s adoption of this technology was on the cutting edge, as most Rumford alterations did not occur until the early 19th century – a factor that led this feature to be mistakenly identified as post-Washington and to be removed in 1998. Around this same time, Thomas Jefferson also installed similar firebox inserts at Monticello.
George Washington dies on December 14, 1799, after a brief illness. A household inventory taken shortly afterward lists the contents of each room, including the following furnishings in the Yellow Room (designated as the “third room” on the second floor): 6 mahogany chairs, a bed, bedstead, and curtains, window curtains, a chest of drawers (or dressing table), a looking glass, washstand, basin and bottle, carpet, 4 prints, and fireplace tools.
Martha Washington dies on May 22, 1802. The household inventory taken after her death identifies this space as the “Yellow Room,” with many of the same furnishings as in the previous inventory. In her will, Mrs. Washington bequeaths “the dressing table and glass that stands in the chamber called the yellow room” to her granddaughter, Elizabeth Parke Custis Law (the same Eliza P Custis who etched her name on a window pane in 1792).
Four generations of Washingtons live in the Mansion. Bushrod and Ann Washington continue to refer to the room as the Yellow Room during their occupancy, 1802-1829. John Augustine Washington II, who inherits Mount Vernon in 1829, and his wife Jane Charlotte Washington, have 5 children. Perhaps some of them occupy the Yellow Room. One of their sons, John Augustine Washington III, eventually inherits Mount Vernon and becomes the last Washington owner of the estate. There is a real possibility that he and his wife, Eleanor Selden Washington, use the Yellow Room as their nursey while in residence. It is likely during this later Washington period that the door opening is created between the Yellow Room and the back stair hall.
After convincing John Augustine Washington III to sell the property, Ann Pamela Cunningham and the organization she has founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union (MVLA), raise $200,000 to purchase the Mansion and 200 acres of surrounding land. Prior to making final payment, the MVLA takes possession of the estate in 1860.
The US Army Corps of Engineers is called upon to perform repairs throughout the Mansion. In the Yellow Room, they execute both painting and papering, installing a green-and-gilt-patterned wallpaper.
To facilitate the furnishing of the empty Mansion, each room is assigned to the care of a Vice Regent, each representing a different state. The Yellow Room becomes the West Virginia Room. That state’s Vice Regent, Mrs. Ella B. Washington, completes a cosmetic restoration of the room in 1882, painting the walls a buff color and the woodwork a dark green. Several “relic cases” are also placed in the room to display the Washingtons clothing, objects, and documents. The room also serves as a visitor path leading to the Washingtons’ Bedchamber.
The Yellow Room undergoes another restoration effort, largely cosmetic, overseen by the estate’s Superintendent, Colonel Harrison Howell Dodge (a position later known as Resident Director, and now President). Prompted by the rediscovery of documents describing this as the “Yellow Room,” the room’s walls are painted yellow, complemented by white woodwork.
The first professional paint analysis at Mount Vernon is undertaken, which indicates that the Yellow Room woodwork was likely painted a putty color. A section of the chair rail is left “to show the successive layers of paint as they were uncovered.”
A major restoration of the Yellow Room takes place in 1981 and early-1982, guided by a ground-breaking 1980 paint study of the Mansion interiors that used the new technique of cross-section microscopy. That work recommends a blue-white color for the woodwork. The findings also suggest that the mantel was installed when the south wing was added in 1775.
In 2015, new paint analysis – using more advanced technologies than existed in 1980 – confirms that the mantel installation occurred in the mid-1770s and there was an early green layer of paint. Consistent with the 1939-1940 paint analysis, however, the recent study confirms that the later 18th-century paint layers on the woodwork were variations of a dark cream color.
Since receiving generous donor support to upgrade the room’s textiles and wallpaper, Historic Preservation & Collections staff complete a partial restoration of the Yellow Room. While the majority of the architectural preservation work will occur in the future, due to the complications of the pandemic, the new installation builds on updated paint analysis, careful study of the Washingtons’ papers, surviving original objects, and recent material culture scholarship to more accurately represent the appearance and social importance of the room in 1799.
The woodwork and mopboards are painted with the 1797 colors, the date when the interior was last painted before George Washington’s death, and period (and color) appropriate wallpaper is hung. A combination of period and reproduction furniture, artwork, and objects furnish the room, consistent with the room’s significance as the best bedchamber, and the list of furnishings on George Washington’s probate inventory. The focal point of the room is the yellow-damask bedstead, a painstaking re-creation of the most valuable bed ensemble owned by the Washingtons, originally acquired by George Washington decades earlier, in 1758, as he was expanding the mansion and making a bid to establish himself within the ruling gentry class in colonial Virginia.
The room also showcases four fine art prints, a bureau dressing table, a looking glass, a dressing glass, a water bottle and wash basin, and six side chairs. Future restoration work will include restoration of the floors, the hearth, the Rumford fireplace, the window, and the ceiling, as well as more in-depth physical investigation.