Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America
National Building Museum, Washington, DC. Curator: Pamela Scott
February 15-September 21, 2003
Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America celebrates the role of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in preserving and restoring George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation in Virginia. Commemorating the association's 150th anniversary in 2003, Saving Mount Vernon argues that founder Ann Pamela Cunningham's efforts to restore and refurnish the house and preserve the surrounding acreage as Washington knew them "heralded the birth of the historic preservation movement in America and inspired others to emulate her principles of authentic preservation." The exhibit successfully, and appropriately, celebrates the ladies' achievements and explains the significance of Mount Vernon to Americans. Too many times, however, it misses opportunities to enrich the story by engaging the broader context, including issues of race and preservation efforts by others.
The exhibit is organized into six thematic sections. The first deals with Mount Vernon as icon and notes that Mount Vernon became a national shrine with George Washington's 1799 death. Over the past 150 years, an estimated 80 million people have visited Mount Vernon, which made it a successful tool for fulfilling two of the association's goals: reminding Americans of Washington's role as a founding father and inspiring visitors "to emulate George Washington's exemplary patriotism."
This section also features Mount Vernon in miniature, an exact replica of the mansion's interior and exterior. This object, which alone makes the exhibit noteworthy, offers visitors the opportunity to study the house in detail and at their own pace.
The next section focuses on Cunningham's grassroots efforts to purchase Mount Vernon from Washington's great-great nephew John A. Washington. By 1858, the association had garnered enough political and financial support to acquire the estate. Thereafter, the ladies implemented an impressive restoration and preservation program that secured Mount Vernon's future. Primarily focusing on documents, this section is the least visually interesting, and the size and sometimes color of the label text are also problematic.
Included in the exhibit are letters from Cunningham to newspapers to build support for her project. Although the exhibit does not highlight these issues, the letters reveal that her efforts to save Mount Vernon were intertwined with the sectional tensions and Southern nationalism that also characterized the 1850s. In an 1853 letter "To the Ladies of the South" in the Charleston Mercury, Cunningham talks about the threat of "Northern capital" and "speculative machinists," and appeals to Southern women "in the name of…Southern feeling and honor." While Cunningham ultimately became convinced that her efforts needed to be national if they were to be successful, Southern nationalism clearly continued to shape the association's priorities in preserving Mount Vernon.
The third section describes the process of, but not the laborers involved in, restoring the mansion. Here the exhibit also encounters a minor organizational problem: it would have been informative to see the topic of the restoration of the mansion together with the topic of the preservation of the viewshed, which appears in an earlier section. While the viewshed photographs provide a nice background for the miniature, discussing the preservation of the house and landscape together would have provided a more holistic depiction of the ladies' efforts.
One of the most object-dense areas of the exhibit addresses the more specialized preservation work of the association's tomb, outbuildings, gardens and grounds, and relics committees. Here visitors can see the original cupola finial, a model of Washington's 16-sided barn, and a variety of Washington's personal items and ceramics. This section is the only one that mentions the institution of slavery; but even here references to slaves and slavery are scant. Photographs show former slaves or their descendants, like Thomas Bushrod and Tom Quander. A painting of an outbuilding shows a slave woman. Exhibit text states that "Although advised to tear down structures where slaves had lived and worked, the association did not comply."
While slavery may be tangential to the story of the association, the issues of race and racism are not. And in this way, the exhibit demonstrates how the association was representative of broader preservation efforts. In prioritizing what was most important to preserve and restore, the ladies overlooked the slave quarters for more than a century. While they admirably understood the quarters' importance in Mount Vernon's daily domestic life, the exhibit also reveals that Mount Vernon's superintendents used the Servants' Hall for their office until 1983.
Not once does the exhibit deal with the issue of how historic sites, monuments, and shrines—all of which characterize Mount Vernon—reflect both the past and the present. At various points, the ladies chose not to highlight a certain aspect of Washington's past and determined what history they thought was worth remembering. The exhibit offers little information about the ladies' decisions, choices, and values about what to preserve at Mount Vernon. The omission of the race and slavery issues becomes more problematic when one considers some of the language in the exhibit. One label described slave Tom Quander as having "descended from a family that had been residing at Mount Vernon since the eighteenth century." The video described the slaves as a "hard-working labor force." Both phrases come across as whitewashing the issue of slavey. More than a dozen visitors expressed concerns in the comment book over what they perceived as "glossing over" the story of slavery. Indeed, one young person perceptively asked, "What about the slaves? Where did they stay? Why wasn't it restored?"
Next, experiencing Mount Vernon looks at visitation to the plantation. This entertaining section includes photographs of the many different individuals, groups, and dignitaries who have made the pilgrimage over the years. The ladies quickly found a means for raising funds for their efforts in the sale of souvenirs, many of which are on display. This section of the exhibit reflects on the influence of Mount Vernon—not only on preservation, but on American architecture generally. Postcards and other images of hotels, restaurants, and private homes show how pervasive and influential Mount Vernon's architecture has become.
A final section takes the visitor inside Mount Vernon's green dining room and teaches visitors that historic preservation is an ongoing process that changes as historians conduct additional research.
The exhibit does many things well, but unfortunately it does not prove, or really even try to prove, that the association's efforts were the first major preservation efforts nor that they inspired others to preserve. Indeed, despite its declining condition, Uriah Phillips Levy purchased Thomas Jefferson's Monticello in 1834, 20 years before Cunningham saw Mount Vernon. He believed that "the houses of great men should be preserved as 'monuments to their glory'" and he and his family owned it for almost a century.(1) Clearly, Levy and Monticello, as much as Cunningham and Mount Vernon, deserve a role in the story of the origins of historic preservation.
Saving Mount Vernon covers an important and interesting topic, is visually stimulating and appealing, and uses an effective combination of historical documents, photographs, and objects. One visitor summed up the exhibit's success when she wrote in the comment book, "A great tribute to George Washington and the ladies who worked to preserve his home and farm." If one accepts the exhibit as a celebration of the association, an organization clearly worthy of celebration, then the omissions regarding Southern nationalism, race and slavery, and the broader preservation movement are less problematic. While the exhibit missed some important opportunities for scholarship and engaging particular issues, it achieves much and is sure to appeal to broad audiences.
Laura Croghan Kamoie
1. Marc Leepson, Saving Monticello: The Levy Family's Epic Quest to Rescue the House That Jefferson Built (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 254.