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The cellar played an important role within the Mount Vernon Mansion.
The Mansion was erected and then extensively expanded during several building campaigns undertaken over a period of several decades, from circa 1734 until 1787. The cellar (or basement) is the place where structural evidence for these changes is most readily visible. The earliest periods of construction are not well documented, but it appears most likely that the center section of the current house is made up of an early house constructed by Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, in 1734. This early house appears to have stood on sandstone foundations that are still visible in places.
Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s older half-brother, owned the property from 1743 until his death in 1752, and he may well have made changes to the house during his tenure as is suggested by the presence of a stone tablet carved with the initials “LW”. The date and significance of the actual tablet are not known. In order to preserve the fragile stone, the original tablet was removed and has been replaced by an exact copy.
George Washington began running the property in 1754 and he twice enlarged the house, first in 1758-59 when he raised the structure by a full story, and in 1774-76 when he added wings to the north and south ends. As part of these expansions, Washington replaced parts of the stone foundations with brick. As it is currently configured the basement consists of several rooms arranged to the west of a passage that runs approximately three-quarters of the length of the east exterior wall; at the south end of the passage is a single large room that occupies the entire space. Three arched vaults lead off of the passage to the east, extending beneath the piazza.
The passage was apparently created by George Washington during his 1774-75 building campaign in order to improve circulation within the reconfigured space. This entailed demolishing a portion of the stone foundation that probably relates to the initial period of construction. The stones then were re-laid to form the west wall of the passage, with the stone tablet re-positioned and reset there as well.
In George Washington’s day, the basement was used for a variety of functions. The large room at the south end of the building was designated as the “Cellar Kitchen” on a plan prepared by George Washington at the time he planned additions to both ends of the building 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 the lobby adjoining George Washington’s study on the floor above. At least one of the rooms probably served as quarters for an enslaved servant named Frank, who is known to have acted in the capacity of “butler.” A 22-foot-deep brick-lined dry well set into the floor of the north room in the basement was used to store food items.
The inventory of Washington’s estate that was made after his death in December 1799 indicates that a variety of supplies and foodstuffs were stored in the cellar, with wine, whiskey, and brandy stored in at least one of the vaults.