George Washington's Mansion at Mount Vernon is the centerpiece of his historic estate along the Potomac River.

1. In 1734, when George Washington was only 3 years old, his father had built the core of what became Washington's Mansion.

George Washington’s father, Augustine Washington, built a modest one and a half story house there in 1734. Washington’s elder half-brother Lawrence lived at the property from 1741 until his death in 1752. George Washington began leasing the property in 1754. Although he did not inherit it outright until 1761, he expanded the house in the last 1750s, raising the roof to make the Mansion two and a half stories high. In 1774, he began to add the north and south wings, the cupola and piazza to create the structure we see today.

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2. The Mansion is ten times the size of the average home in colonial Virginia. 

At almost 11,000 square feet with two and a half stories and a full cellar, the Mansion dwarfed the majority of dwelling houses in late 18th-century Virginia. Most Virginians lived in one- or two-room houses ranging in size from roughly 200 to 1,200 square feet; most of these houses could have fit inside the 24x31 foot New Room. The ceilings of the Mansion vary in height—the average height on the first floor is 10’ 9”, while on the third floor it is 7’3”.

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3. The Mansion is not symmetrical, but George Washington wanted it to
be.

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

Before Washington began construction work in 1774, he executed a design drawing showing how he intended the west front of the Mansion to look. The drawing shows the façade as completely symmetrical with the front door and cupola on the center axis, with the windows balanced to either side of it. But in truth, the door and cupola do not align, nor are the windows symmetrically placed. The construction of the stair in 1758 pushed the door to the north and a window south out of the passage and into the small dining room. This break with the architectural ideal is a good example of the value Washington placed on practical solutions to challenging questions.

4. The expansions of the Mansion have preserved priceless information about the history of the structure and informed its preservation. 

The south and north additions to the Mansion were built right up against the outside of the 1758 house. The 1758 siding was not removed and it is still visible in some of the hard-to-reach crawlspaces of the house. In these spaces, the original rusticated siding has been protected for over 230 years, as well as evidence for second-floor doors that led to porches on top of the one-story “closets” that were removed in the 1770s. The piazza roof covers part of the original shingles on the east slope of the 1770s roof.

Since the piazza roof was built just a year after the New Room addition roof was installed, the preserved shingles are brand new and still have their original red paint!

Building Mount Vernon

1735
1787
Little Hunting Creek Plantation
Augustine Washington Dies
Lawrence Washington Dies
George Washington Expands Mount Vernon
Washington Marries Martha Dandridge Custis
George Washington Inherits Mount Vernon
Second Expansion Begins
North Wing
Exterior Improvements
Dove of Peace Weathervane

1734

Little Hunting Creek Plantation

George Washington's father, Augustine Washington, moves his family to the Little Hunting Creek plantation for three years. George Washington was about three years old at the time. 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. The original house likely consisted of four rooms and a central passage on the first floor and a garret. The family lived at Little Hunting Creek for a few years before moving to Ferry Farm, located across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Augustine Washington Dies

Augustine Washington dies leaving the Little Hunting Creek plantation to George Washington’s older half-brother Lawrence Washington. Not long after inheriting the estate, Lawrence renamed it Mount Vernon, in honor of Admiral Edward Vernon, his commander while serving in the Virginia Foot Regiments.

Lawrence Washington Dies

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 Washington. Thus, when Anne died in 1761, George Washington became the owner of Mount Vernon.

George Washington Expands Mount Vernon

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.

Washington Marries Martha Dandridge Custis

On January 6, 1759, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. In April, she, her children, and many enslaved people moved to Mount Vernon. Just days before their arrival, Washington writes to his plantation manager: “You must have the House very well cleand... the Stair case ought also to be polishd in order to make it look well.”

George Washington Inherits Mount Vernon

Upon the death of Lawrence Washington’s widow, Anne, George Washington becomes the owner of Mount Vernon.

Second Expansion Begins

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. 

North Wing

The north end was also expanded to include a large two-story entertaining space called the New Room. With its two-story-high ceiling, detailed architectural ornamentation, and stylish furnishings, the New Room intended to convey unpretentious beauty and fine craftsmanship, qualities Washington believed communicated the new nation’s values. The General summed up his ambitious goals for the room in a letter written while he was away fighting in the Revolutionary War: “I would have the whole executed in a masterly manner.” While the north wing was started in 1776, its interior was not completed until circa 1787. 

 

Exterior Improvements

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. 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.

Dove of Peace Weathervane

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).” 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.”

View of the cupola with its iconic dove of peace weathervane (MVLA)

View of the cupola with its iconic dove of peace weathervane (MVLA)

5. The cupola is topped with a weathervane in the shape of a dove of peace.

George Washington commissioned a weathervane for the Mansion’s new cupola while he was presiding over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. In his order to Philadelphia architect Joseph Rakestraw, Washington specified that the weathervane should

have a bird…with an olive branch in its Mouth…that it will traverse with the wind and therefore may receive the real shape of a bird.

Rakestraw constructed the weathervane from copper with an iron frame and lead head. Unfortunately, because of the increased air pollution around the Washington, D.C. area, the original dove of peace had to be permanently removed in 1993. Today an exact replica rests in its place.

6. The exterior of the Mansion is rusticated to look like stone - but it is actually made of yellow pine siding.

Rustication is a technique designed to shape wooden siding to appear to be stone. This is done first by notching the faces and beveling the edges of weatherboards to give them the appearance of cut stone blocks. Next, the siding was painted with oil paint. Finally, sand was thrown onto the wet paint, creating a rough stone-like texture.

Washington first rusticated the Mansion in 1758 to make it appear constructed of structural sandstone blocks, which were more expensive than wood or brick. In doing so, Washington preserved the house his father built, while making it appear in the same league with other more substantially-built—and expensive—houses.

7. The piazza is one of George Washington's contributions to colonial Virginian architecture.

The two-story porch facing the Potomac River is one of the Mansion’s most iconic architectural features and was designed by Washington. In the 18th century, it was extremely rare to see such a grand façade on a private residence. Washington’s design for the two-story piers copies the pilasters on the exterior of the New Room’s Palladian window, although at a much greater ratio of width to height. The piazza provided an additional living space and is widely copied on homes throughout America.

The central passageway through the cellar

The central passageway through the cellar

8. Mount Vernon has a full basement, but there are no secret passages leading from it.

The Mansion basement or cellar was an extremely important part of life in the Mansion. A large room at the south end of the building was designated as the “Cellar Kitchen” on a plan prepared by George Washington in 1774. This space appears to have been used as a kitchen for the enslaved individuals assigned to serve the Washington household.

On the plan, three smaller spaces are shown subdividing the room on the west side. These rooms are not extant, but structural evidence indicates that they were constructed, along with a staircase which connected the basement to a landing adjacent to George Washington’s study on the floor above. At least one of the rooms probably served as quarters for Frank Lee, an enslaved butler. Additionally, a 22-foot-deep brick-lined dry well is set into the floor of the north end and was used to store food items.

9. The Washingtons hosted as many as 677 guests at the Mansion in 1798.

The Washingtons had many visitors at Mount Vernon, particularly after the Revolutionary War as Washington’s political stature grew. Many of these visitors were close friends, family members, or neighbors, but others were unknown to the Washingtons'. In 1797, Washington commented about a recent dinner “at which I rarely miss seeing strange faces; come, as they say, out of respect to me. Pray, would not the word curiosity answer as well?”

The steady pace of visitors continued after George Washington’s death in 1799. Martha Washington subsequently moved out of their shared bedchamber to a small room on the third floor. This room afforded her some privacy from the steady stream of visitors who continued to travel to Mount Vernon.

A group of visitors in May of 1860 described the state of the Mansion as

A group of visitors in May of 1860 described the state of the Mansion as

10. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association bought the Mansion and about 200 acres for $200k in 1858

Initially writing under the nom de plume, "A Southern Matron," Ann Pamela Cunningham challenged first the women of the South, and later the women of the entire country, to save the home of George Washington from dilapidation.

After convincing John Augustine Washington III to sell the property, Cunningham and the organization she had founded, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, raised $200,000 to purchase the mansion and two hundred acres. The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association took over operation of the estate in 1860. 

Preservation at Mount Vernon

For more than 160 years the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association has worked to preserve, restore, and manage the estate of George Washington. The effort continues today.

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