In 1754, George Washington began residing at Mount Vernon, a 3,000 acre estate and a house that likely approximated 3,500 square feet. By his death, Washington’s Mount Vernon consisted of about 7,600 acres and an almost 11,000 square foot mansion.

The original house at the core of the present-day Mansion was built for Washington’s father, Augustine Washington. Around 1734, Augustine brought his second wife and children to what was then called Little Hunting Creek plantation. George Washington was about three years old at the time.2 Dendrochronology, or the use of tree ring analysis to determine relative dating, shows the trees used to frame this section of the house were cut in 1734.3 The original house likely consisted of four rooms and a central passage on the first floor and a garret.4 The family lived at Little Hunting Creek for a few years before moving to Ferry Farm, located across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia.5

Conjectural sketch of the original 1734 house, MVLA.

Inheriting Mount Vernon

Lawrence Washington, by unknown artist, c. 1743. Purchase, 1936 [W-126], MVLA.

Lawrence Washington, by unknown artist, c. 1743. Purchase, 1936 [W-126], MVLA.

When George Washington was only 11 years old, in 1743, his father died. The majority of Augustine Washington’s estate went to George’s older half-brothers Augustine Jr and Lawrence.6 The Little Hunting Creek plantation was inherited by Lawrence. Not long after, Lawrence renamed the estate Mount Vernon, in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon, his commander while serving in the Virginia Foot Regiments.7

Lawrence Washington died of tuberculosis in July of 1752 and left Mount Vernon to Sarah, his only living child. His will also stated that if Sarah died without offspring the property would go to Lawrence’s wife, Anne Fairfax Washington. Sarah died only two years later without any children, so Anne inherited Mount Vernon. By this time, Anne had remarried and no longer lived at Mount Vernon. So, after taking ownership of the estate, she began leasing it to George Washington in late-1754. A further provision in Lawrence’s will stated that upon Anne’s death Mount Vernon would pass to George. Thus, when Anne died in 1761, George became the owner of Mount Vernon.8

Learn More about Lawrence Washington

First Expansion

Mount Vernon Virginia Comparison of the Early and Late Plans, Morley J Williams, November 1937, MVLA.

Mount Vernon Virginia Comparison of the Early and Late Plans, Morley J Williams, November 1937, MVLA.

George Washington began expanding Mount Vernon while leasing the property. His first major expansion of the original one-story house with a garret began in the late 1750s. The roof was raised to create a full second story and a third-floor garret. While Washington likely left the footprint of the first floor largely intact, he reconfigured the staircase and the second floor rooms. In addition, ‘Closets,’ or one-story extensions, were added on the north and south ends of the house. Additionally, an entry in Washington's diary reported the house had four principal dependencies attached to the main house by "Pallisades" on low brick walls.9

Washington was away during the majority of the construction, serving in the French and Indian War. In his absence, the work was supervised through coordinated efforts by William Fairfax of Belvoir (a family friend who owned an adjoining estate), Humphrey Knight (an overseer), and John Patterson (a carpenter). While the construction was overseen by Fairfax, Knight, and Patterson, the majority of the work was actually done by Washington’s enslaved labor force.10

Learn about slavery at Mount Vernon

Conjectural sketch of the house after the first expansion, MVLA.

Second Expansion

West Elevation Plan of Mount Vernon, c. 1774, George Washington, MVLA.

West Elevation Plan of Mount Vernon, c. 1774, George Washington, MVLA.

Ox-Eye Window, MVLA.

Ox-Eye Window, MVLA.

By the early 1770s, Washington was thinking about another expansion to the house. A drawing from circa 1774, by Washington himself, shows his vision for the exterior. The façade of the house in the sketch has a symmetry that was not realized in the actual house due to the interior layout.11

The second expansion began in 1774. First, a two-story addition was added to the south end of the house. It contained a study for Washington on the first floor, small service spaces on either side of the study, and a bedroom and dressing rooms for himself and Mrs. Washington on the second floor. This addition was completed in 1775. The north end was also expanded to include a large two-story entertaining space called the New Room. While the north wing was started in 1776, its interior was not completed until circa 1787. The earlier closet extensions would have been removed when the construction of the wings began.

Additionally, the house received several impressive features: a large pediment with an oval, ox-eye window, a cupola, and a two-story piazza along the east façade.12 While a classically-inspired pediment was not an unusual feature on large houses of the time, cupolas were not commonly found in domestic architecture, being more associated with public buildings. And, while small porches could be found adorning houses throughout the colonies, the Mansion’s full-width, two-story form was unique.

Washington was away for the majority of this renovation project as well, attending the Second Continental Congress and then leading the Continental Army. This time, Washington’s manager and distant cousin Lund Washington supervised the work until George returned home in December of 1783.13

Conjectural sketch of the house after the second expansion, MVLA.

The Mansion's Exterior

Piazza, MVLA.

Piazza, MVLA.

Cupola and Dove of Peace, MVLA.

Cupola and Dove of Peace, MVLA.

In addition to increasing the footprint of the Mansion, Washington elaborated the exterior by adding three striking architectural features. A two-story piazza, or porch, was constructed along the east side of the house. While porches, even two-level porches, were common in the 18th century, they tended to be of modest size, enclosing only a door. Washington’s piazza encompassed the entire east side, providing shade and shelter, which the Washington family enjoyed during much of the year.

The design of the west front included a large central pediment that showcased an oval, or oxeye, window. The pediment brought a desired classicism to the west elevation of the Mansion, and it played a key role in establishing the symmetry that Washington intended. In 1778, a cupola was added to the roof. Cupolas are typically associated with public architecture, seen commonly in academic buildings and court houses, but they are far less frequently found on dwelling houses of the period. Like the pediment, it provided a central axis for the symmetry Washington had hoped to achieve, although it does not actually sit at the centerline of the house, being somewhat inexplicably set a few feet to the south. In addition to its aesthetic function, the cupola functions as a ventilator; with its windows open, convection pulls warm air up and out of the house while drawing cooler air through open windows on the lower floors.14

In 1787, Washington designed and ordered a weathervane from Philadelphia artisan Joseph Rakestraw. Washington explained that he "should like to have a bird...with an olive branch in its Mouth. The bird need not be large (for I do not expect that it will traverse with the wind and therefore may receive the real shape of a bird, with spread wings).”15 Supporting this dove of peace weathervane, and the wooden finial and copper ball that were installed with it, is a large wrought-iron lighting rod that has protected the Mansion for over two centuries. The whole assembly completed the cupola, which had been “left so long unfinished.”

Learn More about Washington and Architecture

Washington saw the Mansion as only part of a larger plan that included the surrounding lawns, gardens, and outbuildings.

Explore his ideas for the exterior

Notes

  1. “Growth of Mount Vernon,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon https://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/growth-of-mount-vernon/.
  2. “George Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon https://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washington/.
  3. Oxford Dendrochronology Laboratory Report, Daniel Miles, October 15, 2007.
  4. Robert F. Dalzell, Jr. and Lee Baldwin Dalzell, George Washington’s Mount Vernon: At Home in Revolutionary America (Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1998) 30-31.
  5. “Growth of Mount Vernon” and “George Washington.”
  6. “George Washington.”
  7. Kiera E. Nolan, “Lawrence Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon https://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/lawrence-washington/.
  8. “Lawrence Washington” and “Growth of Mount Vernon.
  9. “Mansion,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon https://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/mansion/.
  10. “Mansion.”
  11. George Washington, "West Elevation and cellar floor plan of Mount Vernon," c.1774, MVLA.
  12. "Mansion."
  13. “Mansion” and Susan P. Schoelwer, “Design, Construction, Decoration, and Furnishing the New Room, 1774-1799,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon https://www.mountvernon.org/the-estate-gardens/the-mansion/the-new-room/design-construction-decoration-and-furnishing-the-new-room/.
  14. “Cupola Tower,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon” https://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/cupola-tower/.
  15. "George Washington to Joseph Rakestraw, 20 Jul7 1787," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 29 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office).

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