Between 1757 and 1759, during the French and Indian War, George Washington expanded the one-story plus garret house passed down from his father and half-brother into a two-story house with a full-height garret above. While the exact plan and room use of the earlier house requires additional study, it is believed that the plan of the central block of the house stayed roughly the same immediately before and after Washington's renovations.
Washington believed in the power of his home to express his social stature and that a properly outfitted house could help advance his station in the world.
Washington lavished significant attention on the front parlor during his expansion. He installed expensive floor-to-ceiling paneling in a style derived directly from English pattern books; he had local craftsman elaborately carve both the mantel and overmantel; and, he ordered "papier machee" ornament in the Rococo style for the ceiling. He also ordered both furniture and an overmantel painting from London, the style center of the British Empire. As George Washington ordered his world after the French and Indian War, the parlor became the center of hospitality at Mount Vernon.
On January 6, 1759, the wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, married George Washington and prepared to move to Mount Vernon with her two small children. As the new lady of the house, Martha Washington would preside over the parlor's social life, and she brought a number of objects with her to help furnish the space and add a feminine touch. Among the most poignant of these were two family portraits painted by English artist John Wollaston, one of Martha and the other of her two children, John ""Jacky"" Parke Custis and Martha ""Patsy"" Parke Custis. Painted in 1757, the two portraits were intended as companions to another Wollaston portrait of Daniel Parke Custis, Martha's first husband; however, before the artist had been paid, Daniel Parke Custis passed away, and the paintings served as a reminder of the young family that had once been. When the two paintings came to Mount Vernon, they carried with them a sense of loss, but also hope for the future.
As in any modern household, when a new couple got married in the 18th century, they often looked to remake their home to reflect their combined tastes, and Mount Vernon was no different. In 1764, five years into their marriage, the young couple decided to upgrade the front parlor's furnishings to better suit their evolving tastes. George Washington wrote to his agent in Liverpool requesting "Two Elbow--& Ten common sitting Chairs for an Entertaining Room." While none of these chairs survive, their high cost indicates that they were significantly more elaborate than the chairs previously used in the space. They were almost certainly mahogany with a rich amount of carving.
Martha Washington also sought to put her personal touch on the new furniture. Shortly after the chairs arrived, the couple was unsatisfied with the quality of the seats. George Washington wrote to his London agent on behalf of Martha requesting “Canvas for one dozn. Chair bottoms” and “Dark shades of yellow worsted for working cross Stitch” to make cross-stitched seat covers. Martha did not finish this project as quickly as anticipated and, during the Presidency, she had the cross-stitched material made into cushions for Windsor chairs. Several of these survive in the Mount Vernon Collection.
In 1763, George William and Sally Fairfax of neighboring Belvoir Plantation visited London where they purchased enough furniture for an entire house from the upholstery firm William Gomm and Sons & Company. Upholsterers were the 18th-century equivalent of interior designers, and the Gomm firm fully outfitted the Fairfaxes with furniture, textiles and mantel pieces. They shipped the furniture across the Atlantic and had it installed at Belvoir. This extravagant purchase was likely the talk of the neighborhood, and it must have caught George Washington's attention. Eleven years later, he acquired much of the furniture from Belvoir.
In May 1772, Maryland artist Charles Willson Peale visited Mount Vernon and painted the first known portrait of George Washington at the age of 40. Washington's writings indicate that he had very little interest in sitting for the artist, implying that the sitting took place at Martha's behest. He wrote, "Inclination having yielded to Importunity, I am now, contrary to all expectation under the hands of Mr Peale." At long last, Martha's portrait would be joined by a portrait of her husband. George Washington chose to be painted in the uniform he had worn nearly a decade earlier as a Colonel in the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War. The untamed wilderness and camp scene in the background referenced Washington's service in the Pennsylvania backcountry and the Ohio Territory.
Just before the outbreak of the American Revolution, George William and Sally Fairfax returned to England, where they would live for the remainder of their lives. They left behind a house full of "mostly new, and very elegant" furniture and instructed George Washington to sell it all at auction. The most expensive suite of furniture, the furniture of the blue dressing chamber, failed to sell. Fairfax presented it to Washington as a gift. The suite consisted of a sofa, one of the first to arrive in Colonial Virginia, and eight "Mah[ogan]y Marlboroug Stuff back chairs," or backstools--chairs upholstered on the back and seat. The entire suite was covered in sixty-seven yards of "Saxon blue" silk-and-worsted damask. This suite of furniture was the height of luxury in Colonial America, where textiles were some of the most expensive goods one could buy, and the plush upholstery provided an added level of comfort than was customary. George Washington brought the furniture back to Mount Vernon and used it in his front parlor, but it was not fully integrated into the space until after the war. Unfortunately, none of the furniture survives, but curators are working to recreate the furniture based on descriptive invoices and surviving period examples.
Even while physically away from his home during the American Revolution, Mount Vernon was never far from George Washington's mind. In 1776, the New Room addition at the north end of the house was started. While it would not be finished until many years later, Washington contemplated the alterations that would need to be made to the chimney stack at the north end of the house, as well as to the north wall of the front parlor to accomodate passage between the two rooms. "With respect to the chimney, I would not have you for the sake of a little work spoil the look of the fireplaces, tho' that in the parlor must, I should think, stand as it does; not so much on account of the wainscotting, which I think must be altered (on account of the door leading into the new building), as on account of the chimney piece and the manner of its fronting into the room."
In 1779, during the depths of the American Revolution, George Washington commissioned Charles Willson Peale to paint a portrait of his young friend and military commander, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had proven his bravery and sincere devotion to the American cause, and George Washington had taken him into his military family, becoming an adopted father to the young French nobleman. Lafayette's portrait was almost certainly destined for the front parlor, where it would hang with pictures of Washington's immediate family. The artist depicted Lafayette in camp wearing the blue-and-buff uniform of the American army with a general's epaulets on his shoulders. Washington did not receive the portrait until 1781, and it likely was not hung until after the war.
When Washington returned from the Revolution, he had major plans to renovate the Mansion, and the front parlor was one of the first to be redone. With the addition of the New Room, the front parlor gained one more function: it became the formal entry to the New Room, with "communication" (a door) being opened between the two rooms. Over the next several years, the Washingtons transformed the space. They repainted the walls a "stone colour," or light cream to complement the furniture; they replaced the Roccoco papier mache ornament on the ceiling with a much lighter neoclassical design; they purchased new hardware; and they had a fireback made with George Washington's cypher and crest.
At the end of the American Revolution, the Marquis de Lafayette returned to France, where he was reunited with his wife and three young children. He was soon joined by a fourth child. To celebrate these momentous occasions, Lafayette and his family sat for a portrait, which he would send to George Washington as a gift. An early visitor recorded that in the portrait, "The Mar[quis] in an American uniform is presenting to his wife, who is seated, his son aged 4 also in American uniform; his two daughters nearly the same age complete the group." Washington was flattered at the gift, and he wrote that he "would give it the best place in my House," which meant that he would put it in the parlor with his other family portraits. With the presentation of this new family portrait, Washington likely moved the Charles Willson Peale portrait of Lafayette to a second floor bedchamber, where it would commemorate his having stayed in that room. Unfortunately, the painting disappeared after Martha Washington's death, and its whereabouts are currently unknown. The missing portrait is a great mystery, and Mount Vernon's curators hope that this project might lead them to the original, if it still exists.
After the Battle of Yorktown, the Washington family was transformed by the death of John "Jacky" Parke Custis. Nurturing Jacky's four young children, Martha's grandchildren, became a central focus of the Washingtons' lives, and the two youngest, Eleanor "Nelly" Parke Custis and George Washington Parke Custis, came to live at Mount Vernon. In 1785, the Washingtons had the four grandchildren painted by the artist Robert Edge Pine, and these paintings most likely originally hung in the front parlor. Pine was an English emigree who came to America because he issued a print supportive of the American cause early in the war and lost all monetary support in Britain. Washington purchased four paintings from him and allowed himself to be painted, providing a significant jump-start to the artist's American career. As a gift to Martha, Pine painted a portrait of her favorite niece, Frances "Fanny" Bassett. This portrait hung in the front parlor until Martha's death.
By 1790, the Fairfax furniture would have been twenty-seven years old and, while the furniture would have spent most of its time under slipcovers, heavy use probably caused the quilting (a sort of tufting) to break out, and the welting (or cording) was likely well worn. To make the necessary repairs, Washington bought a variety of needles, cord, thimbles, and brass tacks.
When George Washington retired from the Presidency, he embarked on yet another series of repairs to address deferred maintenance. The constant stream of guests had taken a toll on the Mansion's interiors, and the parlor was one of the most heavily used of them all. The Washingtons brought back a number of neoclassical objects to add to the parlor including a looking glass, a fashionable Pembroke table, and a set of portaits of the Washington family by James Sharples. The Sharples portraits likely displaced those painted by Robert Edge Pine. The Washingtons also required a luxurious new Wilton or Brussels carpet, and George Washington wrote to his agent in Philadelphia, saying "as the furniture [in the parlor] was blue, the ground or principal flowers in it ought to be also." With so many changes to the hangings in the room, on top of deferred maintenance, the space most likely needed to be repainted. A second layer of almost identical cream survives in the paint stratigraphy, indicating that they Washingtons simply repainted in the same color.
George Washington died on December 14, 1799, after a brief illness. A household inventory taken shortly afterward lists the contents of each room, noting that the "Front Parlour" included not only the suite of furniture purchased from the Belvoir estate, but also the carpet and more than a dozen portraits.
Martha Washington dies on May 22, 1802. The household inventory taken after her death also identifies this space as the "Front Parlour," with many of the same furnishings as in the previous inventory.
Four generations of Washingtons lived in the Mansion after Martha's death. George Washington's nephew, Judge Bushrod Washington, inherited the estate from the General. After Bushrod, John Augustine Washington II, his wife, and one of his sons eventually inherited the estate. John Augustine Washington III became the last Washington owner of the estate. The little documentation that exists from this period infers that the Front Parlor, while perhaps not as well-kept, remained a formal space where portraits were hung.
After convincing John Augustine Washington III to sell the property, Ann Pamela Cunningham and the organization she had founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, raised $200,000 to purchase the Mansion and 200 acres of surrounding land. The MVLA took title to the estate on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1860.
The US Army Corps of Engineers was called upon to perform repairs throughout the Mansion. The then-called "West Parlor" was repainted for the first time under the MVLA's stewardship. The "light blue" color of the room was highlighted in an 1877 article in The Building News and Engineering Record.
To facilitate the furnishing of the empty Mansion, each room was assigned to the care of one of the Vice Regents, each representing a different state. The West Parlor became the Illinois Room, and the Vice Regent for Illinois, Mrs. Barry, began fundraising and made clear that the architectural restoration work must precede furnishing. The restoration was completed by mid-1879 by Emmart & Quartley, including paint stripping, repainting in a "soft tint," and repair. Their work preserved the paneling and much of the ceiling ornament. After the architectural work was completed, the room was refurnished.
During the intervening years, miscellaneous repairs were undertaken to the paneling, ceiling, and windows. The room was repainted, the overmantel painting was conserved, and floor coverings were added. In 1931, the Washington-era floors were replaced.
Based upon an early version of paint analysis, the room was painted a "light tan of greyish tint," which appeared to be similar to the 4-5 preceding layers, and the doors was painted to match. Soon thereafter, a Wilton carpet was purchased to complement the room; this carpet was replaced with an Axminster carpet in 1970.
Some necessary repairs to the ceiling and the paneling were undertaken in 1959. Before repainting the walls, Architect for Restoration Walter Macomber made the decision to remove, repair and reinstall several panels on the east wall. For the first time, the surface behind the paneling was photographed, showing an earlier plaster and lath wall surface and chair rail on the east wall, as well as a door opening between the front and little parlors.
The last major restoration of the Front Parlor took place in 1981, guided by a ground-breaking paint study carried out throughout the Mansion in 1980. That work identified the bright blue ("robins egg blue" or "Prussian blue") pigment that will be seen on the woodwork until 2018, as well as faux-graining on the doors.
The first large-scale project to occur after the 1980s restoration was the restoration of the windows. The entire assemblies were removed before being repaired, reinstalled and repainted. While some replacement occurred, many original elements survived including sash pulleys, sash locks, and window panes, as well as the architraves and sashes themselves. In addition, key evidence was found for the Mansion shutters.
To improve the historical accuracy of the room, a new Wilton carpet was commissioned to better reflect the type of carpet that Washington ordered for the Front Parlor. This carpet was based on an example in the Woodward Grosvenor archive that met Washington's original specifications. Before the carpet was completed and installed, the room's ceiling was restored to address delaminating plaster and paint build-up. The ceiling was scraped, stripped, and consolidated before several pieces of the ceiling ornament were recast and replaced. After the ceiling work was completed, the new carpet was installed.
The MVLA purchased at auction a 1760-1773 ledger book kept by George William Fairfax of Belvoir Plantation. This ledger documents, in extensive detail, a previously unknown suite of furniture that George William Fairfax purchased and later gave to George Washington for use in the front parlor. While none of the original furniture survives, the extensive documentary evidence provided enough information to allow curators to have the furniture reconstructed as it might have been.
In 2015 and 2016, new paint analysis - using more advanced technologies than existed in 1940 and 1980 - found far more layers than the early analyses and placed the light blue paint layer, which was documented in an 1877 magazine article, at generation seven. This layer was preceded by several layers of lighter, more neutral paint colors. By carefully matching the paint layers with documentary evidence for major construction or repainting, the preservation team determined that George Washington likely painted the cream four times during his lifetime. The fourth layer, a cream or "stone" color was likely applied in 1797, after Washington returned from the presidency. The room will be repainted its Washington-era stone color.
Since the closure of the Front Parlor in August 2017, Historic Preservation & Collections staff have been hard at work, giving all elements of the room careful study. As the project proceeds, preservation staff and craftsmen will be restoring the paneling, ceiling, floorboards and windows and repainting the woodwork a neutral, cream color as identified in the latest round of paint analysis. Extensive physical investigation will be undertaken on and behind the paneled walls. In the meantime, curators and other specialists are working to painstakingly recreate the suite of furniture that Washington purchased from the Fairfax's Belvoir estate, including the furniture fabrics, as well as the personal portraiture that would have hung on the walls. Further, appropriate window textiles will be identified and both the fireback and overmantel painting will be conserved.