“Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change!” -Ann Pamela Cunningham, Founder of the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association.
President’s Day is a grand time to tour Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington. The place opens up to the public for free, making a perfect opportunity to pay respects at the resting place of the nation’s least controversial Founding Father on his official birthday celebration.
The view atop Mount Vernon seems to have changed very little since the days when the General presided over the place. The Potomac river wanders by, bordered with forested banks and marshland; only the odd cell phone tower and a small marina remind you that it is a different age.
It’s a very pastoral setting, difficult to match anywhere. Standing there makes it very understandable why GW could not wait to leave the presidency behind for it.
Though grand, the mansion’s greatness is augmented by its comparatively humble dimensions. Many McMansions of today could vie with it for square footage. This helps the estate succeed in impressing you in a way that far grander estates fail. One goes to Mount Vernon because of who chose to live there, not because of who got to live there.
The building itself exudes a serenity in its clean lines, colors, and effortless symmetry. Like the best of colonial era architecture, it appears light and supple, and recalls many classical elements. Cato would have felt at home there.
Inside, the decorators go to great lengths to preserve what it would have looked like in Washington’s day. This succeeds all the way down to the lighting. The furniture is of evident quality and appears comfortable without being cluttered or ostentatious. It very much looks like someone lived there, and had either a big family or many guests. Nailed on the wall is the heavy iron key to the Bastile, an indubitable witness to the fact that many revolutions find their inspiration in the one waged first in America.
The grounds go all the way to the Potomac, and encompass fields, trees, and a colonial revival garden. A small brick tomb sits nestled in the wooded hillside. Within lay George and Martha Washington next to one another, with the same austere closeness of Ferdinand and Isabella an ocean away.
A visit to Mount Vernon creates an opportunity to venture a little further into the reality of a man whose character left an impression larger than life. That character stood above politics and policy in a way no other in American history ever could. Mount Vernon is ultimately a testimony to that virtue so often neglected: temperance. We can all join Mrs. Cunningham in hoping that this will never change.
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