Exhibit Looks at Efforts to Save Mt. Vernon

Posted February 12, 2003 at 3:37pm

“Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America” showcases the historic efforts of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association to preserve George Washington’s Virginia plantation.

The exhibit, which will run from Feb. 15 to Sept. 21 at the National Building Museum, highlights MVLA’s work from acquiring the estate to the actual restoration activities that have spanned 150 years including the globe-trotting women searching for rare Washington memorabilia.

“Saving Mount Vernon” shows the ladies as the driving force behind the restoration project and offers a historical perspective on the restoration of Washington’s home over the past two centuries.

Founded in 1853, the MVLA women bonded together to raise funds to repurchase the estate as the first example of American’s tradition of historic preservation. The organization offered women an outlet of patriotism in an era of little opportunity outside the home. “It is such an extraordinary legacy that these women were really carving it out in virgin stone that all other preservation organizations modeled themselves after,” said Connecticut board member Clare Edwards.

Part of the exhibit features the evolution of preservation. “The necessary structural preservations will be shown, such as the signature pieces of the Corp of Army Engineers stabilizing the piazza,” said Mount Vernon Director of Collections Linda Ayres. Just one of multiple structural remodeling to the estate, the piazza roof was in such poor shape that it had been propped up with masts of old ships.

Pamela Cunningham spearheaded MVLA’s efforts to restore Mount Vernon to its earlier glory. The MVLA filled the mansion with Washington artifacts and other furniture from the period working to restore the mansion, which was funded entirely by individual donations, in time for the centennial in1876. The exhibit includes preserved items featuring key MVLA players, such as correspondence between members, fundraising circulars and canceled checks in this nationwide effort to restore the estate.

MVLA preserved Washington’s home during the Civil War by persuading General Winfield Scott and the governor of Virginia to safeguard the estate by declaring it a neutral territory. “Cunningham and her secretary, Sarah Tracy, lived there to make sure it was safeguarded,” Ayres said. Cunningham even obtained papers from President Abraham Lincoln to travel back and forth across the battlefields.

Attracting more than 1million visitors a year, Mount Vernon’s popularity has risen as the preservation efforts have increased to restore Mount Vernon to Washington’s glory. “Pictures contrast how the interiors have changed. … Historical preservation has changed to go back to its roots,” Ayres said. Over the past half-century restoration has focused on bringing actual pieces from Washington’s time to the mansion. The ladies have aided this effort by bringing historic Washington furnishings and personal artifacts back to the estate. Examples of these, including the 1787 Dove of Peace weather vane Washington commissioned, are featured in the exhibit, Ayres said.

The MVLA women of today have shifted their focus beyond their primary mission of saving the estate. The board has expanded their mission to educate the public about Washington’s personal legacy. “Here we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century our mission is saving George Washington’s legacy,” Edwards said.