Friday, May 13, 2016

Mount Vernon, the Fixer-Upper of Historic Proportions and the Adventures to Come

Last May my daughter and I visited Mount Vernon, touring not only the gardens but also their special gardening exhibit. One item in the gardening exhibit especially caught my eye. It was a painting of a sadly neglected Mount Vernon, most particularly the piazza that faces the river. It was such a stark contrast to the grandness of Mount Vernon that we see in most paintings today, and in real life. I wanted to take a picture of the painting but photography of the exhibit was not allowed. I stood and gazed at it as long as possible to impress it on my memory. Then I dared to attempt a sketch of it in my 18th century commonplace book. As poor an artist as I am, I wanted to remember this painting. 

Mount Vernon Ruins Commonplace Book

On the left side I jotted down the information regarding the painting: "Landscape Study for Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon, 1784," by Louis Remy Mignot who visited Mount Vernon in 1857.  Since photography was not allowed, nor were there any books on the exhibit, I had to rely on my memory and my sketch. Every time I googled the title of the painting I found this painting of Washington and Lafayette at Mount Vernon in 1784 which I've seen many times. However, this is not the painting that hung in the Mount Vernon garden exhibit. For months I've searched and searched in all of my free time (hence the delay in this post which I began in May.) It was important to me to conquer this painting, because I wanted  my readers to see it, to experience the same tug of the heartstrings. Furthermore because of this painting, exhibit, and my recent read of the Martha Washington biography, research into the family genealogy opened doors of discovery, wonder, and plans for our upcoming summer stay-cation. Yet how could I adequately discuss the thrill of some of the places that we visited without showing this painting from the exhibit, the painting I could not locate?

At last I have some direction. Late last night I tried one more time to wrap my head around this perplexity and did new google searches which yielded this bit of information from the Mount Vernon website. Remy's visit to Mount Vernon in 1857 coincided with that of another artist, Eastman Johnson who painted "The Old Mount Vernon" in 1857. (Can be seen at the previous link.) Yes! That's it! So I wrote it in pen under my pencil sketch. Well...sort of. I distinctly remember only the porch but this is a painting of Mount Vernon in 1857. More google searches yielded nothing else than more images of this same bittersweet painting. My mind had become weary after a long day so I closed my laptop to enjoy a movie.

This morning I pulled out my sketch to compare to the painting. Hmmm....wait a minute. The angles were all wrong. I'm no artist but in my rendering the artist is on the portico looking out towards the grounds, instead of standing on the grounds looking towards the portico as shown in the Johnson painting. Also the view from the porch had a different height line for the tree tops. I carefully looked at my sketch again. I recalled that the painting in the exhibit was from the perspective of standing on the porch, looking towards the Old Tomb (where Washington had first been buried), with the river (unseen) to the left (I have visited Mount Vernon numerous times so I know the spot). Then I pulled up Remy's painting of Lafayette's visit with Washington in 1784. There it was. Same angle as my sketch. The tree line is more of a match (This non-artist is rather excited about that!), I can see the ceiling of the portico. The big difference is that the 1857 Mount Vernon painting is in ruins which Remy must have used to have a placement reference when added in Washington and Lafayette, and a newer looking Mount Vernon of 1784. Mystery solved!     

Although I cannot find a copy of Remy's Mount Vernon of 1857, I can share the Johnson painting of Mount Vernon of 1857, titled "The Old Mount Vernon." More of the property is seen in this painting, yet the decay and ruin is evident...and heartbreaking...(I did stumble on a couple of others from the 19th century, but to me, this is the second most poignant, the first being the Remy painting from the exhibit.)

The Remy painting of 1857 deeply affected me. The deterioration of the property tugged at my heartstrings. How could the home of the Father of our Country fall into such disrepair? Although I've known and seen pictures of Mount Vernon in decay when the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association took ownership, it was the Remy painting that tugged at my heartstrings. It represented what once used to be, that so few of us are aware of now that we get to tour restored historic estates. Many of us know the work organizations like the Historic Trust and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association have done to restore historic properties. However my recent springtime readings of Mount Vernon revealed the struggle for upkeep even in the days of Washington. Of course that makes sense, because don't we battle that same need in our own homes? Replace the roof. Fight the termites. Repair the broken window. What did upkeep look like in Washington's day?


While Washington was alive, one of his chief goals was to properly maintain Mount Vernon. His daily routine as a Virginia planter included riding his horse on his property (vast acres) after breakfast, for hours, finally coming home for dinner. When his country called him away, first during the American Revolution, then during the Constitutional Convention and later as president, he wrote numerous letters to the estate manager regarding care of the property, expecting frequent accounts and explicit details. Alas, upon his return home he found it in disrepair. (When he left for the American Revolution in 1775 he didn't return home until Sept 1781 with General Rochambeau of France, en route to Williamsburg to plan strategy for come home for the siege on Yorktown, the last major battle of the revolution.) Each time he returned home one of Washington's first tasks was to oversee renovations.

The Charge

"From the records, it's clear Washington had trouble finding the kind of head gardener he wanted. We can hear the voice of experience in a letter to his London agent in 1771, which runs, 'I do not desire any of your fine fellows who will content themselves with Planning of Work, I want a Man that will labour hard, knowing at the same time how to keep a Garden in good Order and Sow Seed in their proper seasons in ground that he  has prepared well for the reception of them.'" (Washington's Gardens at Mount Vernon: Landscape of the Inner Man, Mac Griswold, p104)

The American Revolution Years, 1775-1783 

 "The second phase of landscape began in 1774 and lasted until Washington left again for New York and the presidency in 1789. It coincided with his second and very ambitious architectural remodeling, which produced the present cupola-topped Mount Vernon. Work on both house and gardens continued during the Revolutionary War (1776-83) and was carried out in that eight-year absence according to his letters to his manager and cousin, Lund Washington, which often were written from battlefield encampments." (p40)


"In his long absences, whether as commander in chief or president, his correspondence with his superintendent was filled with anxious notes saying, 'Tell the Gardener he must plant the hickory nuts in drills' or asking, 'Does the last, and present years planting of Honey locust seed come up well, and is there any appearance of the Cedar berries, Furze seed, Lucern, & ca., &ca., coming up, and answering expectation?'" (133)


"The colonies were at war, but the cabbages had to be planted. In his August 1776 account book Washington noted that in June he had bought '450 Cabbage Plants' and '250 Sallery Plants,' as well as parsley, endive, and turnip seed." (114)


"The black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) in the north grove, for instance, were planted only fifteen feet apart, 'thick enough,' as he instructed his manager and cousin, Lund Washington, in December 1776, 'for limbs to Interlock when the Trees are grown...'" (68)

"'How many Lambs have you had this Spring? How many colts are you like to have?' he wrote to Lund Washington. 'Is your covered ways done? What are you going to do next? Have you any prospect of getting paint and Oyl? Are you going to repair the Pavement of the Piazza? Is there anything doing, or like to be done with respect to the Wall at the edge of the Hill in front of the house? Have you made good the decayed Trees at the ends of the House, in the Hedges &ca. Have you made any attempts to reclaim more land for the meadow? &ca. &ca. And acct. of these things would be satisfactory to me, and infinitely amusing in the recital, as I have these kind of improvements very much at heart.'" (164) Written by George Washington in March 1781.


The Constitutional Convention Months, 1787

"While he was cooped up in Philadelphia in 1787, during the hot months of the Constitutional Convention, Washington visited Bertram's nursery (which still exists as a museum) for the first time. It was, Washington said, 'stored with many curious plants, shrubs and trees, many of which are exotics,' but he also noted that it was 'not laid off with much taste nor was it large.'" (67)

"In 1787 Washington sent careful instructions to his then farm manager and nephew, George Augustine Washington, about paving the bottom of the new manure pit with cobblestones, which would prevent any composted liquids from draining away....The design of the rectangular pit...tallies closely with John Spurrier's advice in The Practical Farmer, a book that Washington owned." (157)


The Presidential years, 1789-1797

"In the spring of 1792, during his first term as president, when he was sixty years old, Washington ordered 106 trees and shrubs from the Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, nursery and botanic garden of John Bartram. Most died that summer in a fierce drought. In the fall, Washington wrote from Philadelphia to his superintendent, Anthony Whiting, telling him to expect 97 replacement specimens." (67)

"In 1792 when President Washington was serving his first term, he wrote to his manager from Philadelphia with detailed plans and lists of materials. He also calculated the number of bricks needed." (30)


 "He visited the Prince Nurseries in Flushing, Long Island, during his first presidential term. Although it was famed for its fruit trees, which Washington admired, he wrote that it otherwise 'did not answer my expectations. The shrubs were trifling, and the flowers not numerous.'" (67)

"The threshing barn...are two reconstructed farm monuments that bear witness to Washington's inventiveness and his fervent desire that everything be 'trim, handsome & thriving.'" (158) This barn was built during his presidency from 1792-1794. (195)


"Occasionally there would be an outburst, as on February 1793: 'Under cover of this letter you will receive...the white bent grass...If the Acct. of it be just, it must be a valuable grass; I therefore desire it may be sowed in drills, and to the best advantage for the purpose of the seed. These things which are intended for the experiments...shd. never be put in fields or meadows...for there (if not forgot) they are neglected...This has been the case of the Choricum (from Mr. Young) and a grass which sold for two Guinea a quart in England...And the same, or some other fate equally as bad has attended a great many curious seeds which have been given to, and sent home by me at different times but of which I have heard nothing more." (133-134)

"'Tell the Gardener I shall expect everything that a Garden ought to produce, in the most ample manner,' wrote Washington to his manager William Pearce, in June 1797, the year he returned home from his second term." (109)

Upon His Return Home after his Presidential Years

"I am once more seated under my own Vine and Fig-tree, and hope to spend the remainder of my days...in peaceful retirement, making political pursuits yield to the more rational amusement of cultivating the earth." (131)

Other Sources

Here is more on the renovations at Mount Vernon, itself.  Scroll down to "Construction and Destruction."

Here is a direct link to a letter President Washington wrote from Philadelphia on July 14, 1793 concerning the need for an effective overseer of his property.

After George Washington

When I walk through the Visitor Center from the estate of Mount Vernon, I pass by the wall of photographs  that showcase Mount Vernon in the 19th century...in ruins. Then appears the section of hope when it was purchased by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, and its return to greatness. I've often wondered about the in-between years after Martha Washington passed away. That led to more research (and field trips) in the ensuing months to this posting.

The Years Between George Washington and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association


After the deaths of George Washington (1799) and his wife, Martha (1802), Mount Vernon became the property of a nephew, Bushrod Washington. He interrupted his studies at the College of William and Mary to fight with the Continental Army. Afterwards he studied law under one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence (and future Supreme Court justice) James Wilson, at the recommendation of his uncle, George Washington. Bushrod Washington served as House Delegate of Virginia, and later as Supreme Court justice. He and his wife passed away two days apart from each other in 1829. 

The next heir to Mount Vernon was the nephew of Bushrod Washington, John Augustine Washington II.  Moving from his home of Blakeley Plantation in Charles Town, West Virginia, he and his family moved into their new home where they lived a comfortable life. In 1832 he passed away so his widow inherited the estate. Meanwhile the oldest son, John Augustine Washington III (who would become the final heir) attended college at the University of Virginia in 1840. A year later he returned home, offering to help his mother in managing the estate. She agreed, allowing him to run the plantation as he wished. However John III soon realized he was in over his head. The once grand estate had somehow fallen to decay over the years.  Despite his attempts to bring in income, bad weather and pests reigned. The soil was nearly destroyed.

Throughout the ownership of Mount Vernon by the various heirs, the public continually requested permission to visit the property. Preferring privacy and time to focus on the business at hand to work the land, requests were denied. Finally, John III reconsidered. He charged admission and sold small products. Hence my meeting with Abraham Lincoln that day. Nevertheless, massive debt continued to grow. John III tried to sell the estate to the federal government, then the state government. Due to their own troubles (being the eve of the Civil War), they declined. Then in 1858 a group of ladies offered to buy the property. They are now known as the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. They purchased the estate in 1858 for $200,000.

The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association is the first "national historic preservation organization." Many other such organizations followed. This type of story is not unique. Mercantilism of the 18th century especially coupled with slavery was not profitable. Most of the founders died in debt. How many estates have I visited, that were once grand in their prime, that fell into debt and decay after the owner died? Mount Vernon. Monticello. Montpelier. Gunston Hall. Berkeley Plantation. And more. Some are in greater stages of restoration than others, most often dependent on the monies they receive from donors to research and restore (even like Colonial Williamsburg and many others). I've known of this for some time, but it was the elusive Remy painting of Mount Vernon of 1857 that struck my heart. That is when head knowledge (and taking for granted historic preservation) became a deep appreciation.

All of this digging for details led into a curiosity of the descendants of Martha's side of the family. What happened to them? Why didn't they inherit the estate? They were the ones who grew up there. I found out that they loved it so much, that they tried to reinvent it in their own homes.  Well, I had to go see for myself! And turned out I had already visited one of them years ago!

All of this research led to a plan in my head. I proposed it to my family, and they were up to the adventure! We went treasure hunting this summer. Instead of focusing on the new, we took our Weekend Summer Stay-cation to old homes of the past...and boy were there surprises!!!!  I have so many journeys to share with you! My knowledge and understanding of the people of the 18th century has exploded! My understanding of the land, of the people who lived there, of the history they influenced...has all come together in new connections. All those things I keep hearing about...became real as I looked at foundations, chimney stacks, and imagined...

Stay tuned!

PS: I definitely plan to take art lessons for better renderings in the future!

Resources:

http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/biography/#callout-16

http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/george-washingtons-will/

http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/bushrod-washington/

http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/john-augustine-washington-iii/

http://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/mount-vernon-ladies-association/

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