The Blue Room, a second-floor bedchamber located at the head of Mount Vernon's main staircase, incorporates changes from at least three significant moments in the Washingtons' lives: when George Washington first became the gentleman landowner of Mount Vernon; when Martha Washington became mistress of the house; and years later, when his status as gentleman, military hero, and national leader was fully established.
In the late 1750s, Washington has established himself as a military leader and is on the cusp of inheriting the Mount Vernon estate and marrying the wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis.
In 1757-1759, 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 addition, reached by a grand staircase leading from the Central Passage, has five distinct rooms. The Blue Room is located on the land side of the house, just at the head of the stairs.
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. Within a month, an order goes off to London for an array of stylish bedroom furnishings, including a high-post bed with “fashionable” blue or blue and white curtains, matching bedspread and chair upholstery, “in order to make the whole furniture . . . uniformly handsome and genteel.” By the 1790s, these furnishings appear to have been moved into the Blue Room.
Prior to 1776, the woodwork in the Blue Room is painted a medium blue, and its walls are likely covered in wallpaper. Stemming from the late-1750’s building campaign, this room also includes an unusual architectural feature: a door leading to a small balcony on the roof of a small closet extension from the parlor below.
As the American Revolution gathers momentum, Washington adds wings to the south and north ends of the house. Construction of the north wing, begun in 1776, prompts changes to the Blue Room. The exterior balcony and closet extension are removed and the door leading to the balcony is closed, hidden behind the north wall. A fireplace mantel is installed, its design based on an English architectural handbook. The mantel and other woodwork is painted a cream color, with a brown baseboard. This shift likely emphasizes the classical nature of the architectural trim.
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 Blue 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 1780’s, spaces throughout the Mansion receive attention, most notably plasterwork, and possibly other upgrades.
Washington’s preparations for retirement include plans for updating Mount Vernon. He asks his farm manager William Pearce for room measurements, 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 Blue 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 Blue Room’s woodwork with another coat of cream-colored paint and hanging new wallpaper.
Always interested in innovation, Washington installs new-fangled “Rumford chimney-fireplaces” in several chimneys, including that in the Blue 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 in the Blue Room to be mistakenly identified as post-Washington and to be removedin 1982. 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 Blue Room (designated as the “first room” on the second floor): a bed, bedstead, and curtains, 6 mahogany chairs, a dressing table, a large looking glass, 4 prints, window curtains, carpet, wash basin and pitcher, and fireplace tools.
Martha Washington dies on May 22, 1802. The household inventory taken after her death identifies this space as the “Blue Room,” with many of the same furnishings as in the previous inventory.
Four generations of Washingtons live in the Mansion. 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 Blue Room. One of their sons, John Augustine Washington III, eventually inherits Mount Vernon and becomes the last Washington owner of the estate.
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, raise $200,000 to purchase the Mansion and 200 acres of surrounding land. The MVLA takes title to the estate on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1860.
To facilitate the furnishing of the empty Mansion, each room is assigned to the care of one of the Vice Regents, each representing a different state. The Blue Room becomes the New Jersey room. Within a year, that state’s Vice Regent, Mrs. Nancy Wade Marsh Halsted, gathers nearly $ 2,000 worth of “furniture, carpets, and antiquities,” to create “a cheerful appearance.”
The US Army Corps of Engineers is called upon to perform repairs throughout the Mansion. In the Blue Room, they replace the original plaster, preserving the underlying 18th-century lath, and execute both painting and papering. The room is then furnished, including the laying of carpet.
The Blue Room woodwork is painted blue, based on an early paint layer uncovered on the window sash and the woodwork. A section of the chair rail is left “to show the successive layers of paint as they were uncovered.”
The Blue Room is again refreshed, under the supervision of Restoration Architect Walter M. Macomber. The walls are re-papered in the same Glebe House pattern, and the woodwork is given a fresh coat of blue paint.
Due to plaster failure in the ceiling, all of the ceiling plaster and the 18th-century ceiling lath and lath nails is removed. A new plaster system is installed in the ceiling and, after the work is completed, the room is again repainted and repapered and textiles are refreshed.
The last major restoration of the Blue Room takes place in 1982, guided by a ground-breaking paint study carried out throughout the Mansion in 1980. That work identified the bright blue pigment seen on the woodwork until the room closed to the public in January 2017. The findings also suggested that the Blue Room’s mantel was a 19th-century insertion, as it lacked the earliest paint layers found elsewhere in the room. Based on this interpretation, the mantel was removed and preserved in Mount Vernon’s architectural study collection, where it awaited new discoveries by the current generation of researchers.
In 2013, Mount Vernon’s architecture team re-examine the Blue Room mantel (in storage), and determine that its construction methods and fasteners date to the 18th century.
In 2015 and 2016, new paint analysis – using more advanced technologies than existed in 1982 – confirms that the mantel in storage is actually the one that had been installed by the Washingtons in 1776 – some years after the Blue Room’s other woodwork, explaining the missing early layers of paint.
After months of research and study, the Blue Room closes from January to October 2017 to undergo a thorough restoration.
During the project, the 1776 mantel is repaired and reinstalled; the late-1790s Rumford fireplace insert is rebuilt; the 1750s floor and windows are restored; the ceiling is repaired and whitewashed; and, evidence is found for an early door within the north wall. In addition, the woodwork is painted the neutral cream color identified in paint analysis as the 1797 paint layer. The cream paint frames the custom, reproduction blue wallpaper and border that is based upon a 1790s pattern found in the Reveillon wallpaper collection. A combination of period and reproduction furniture, artwork, and objects furnish the room, consistent with the room’s contents as detailed in George Washington’s probate inventory. One focal point of the room is the bedstead, featuring blue copper-plate-printed cotton hangings and a fabric-covered cornice. 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.