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George Washington, revealed

Think you know him? A new Mount Vernon reinvents our view of his legacy

George Washington, revealed
(Jay Premack for the Boston Globe)
Photo Gallery Photo gallery  If you go: Mount Vernon
Email|Print| Text size + By Michael Kranish and Jessica Kranish
Globe Staff and Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2007

MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- George Washington's home comes slowly into view as a visitor approaches from a sweeping lawn. The red-and-white mansion, with its colonnades, cupola, and piazza, commands a gentle rise above the Potomac River. It appears to be a structure of large solid bricks, with windows spaced along the length of the second story.

But all is not as it seems. The bricks are actually rusticated wood mixed with paint and sand. The two windows on the left are fake. The home is partly an illusion, a wink from Washington across time. It is a feat that has inspired the latest visionaries at Mount Vernon, who have just completed the largest construction project at the estate since Washington's home was enlarged and improved before his marriage in 1759.

What is new is hidden beneath a pasture where sheep will soon graze, a landscape that seems idyllic but is merely an emerald cover. A new museum and visitors center have been tucked into the earth so carefully they are hardly apparent to people who amble up the walkway toward Washington's mansion.

Inside the new facilities is a trove of Washington treasures, many of which, until just months ago, had been stored in a nearby vault. They include swords, a Bible, a set of Washington's false teeth, and a written inventory of slaves.

An education center overflows with high-tech efforts to reveal Washington, re-creating what he looked like at various stages of his life (1732-99), including as a striking teenager, clear-faced before the ravages of smallpox. In the most elaborate and unexpected exhibit, visitors find themselves in the middle of a multimedia battle scene, with seats shaking, snow falling, and cannons rattling round after round.

The theme of this grand reopening of Mount Vernon is "Discover the Real George Washington," but it might just as well be called "Discover George Washington." After conducting research and using focus groups worthy of the city that takes its name from the father of our country, the overseers of Mount Vernon came to a rather startling conclusion: Most visitors know little beyond the basic facts that Washington fought for freedom from the British and was the first president.

"It's undeniable that most of our visitors come knowing very little about George Washington," said Stephanie Brown, associate director of public affairs at Mount Vernon. "The image most people have is that grumpy old man on the dollar bill."

With visitation to many historic attractions suffering a decline across the country, the privately financed Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which owns Washington's home, decided to reinvent the way he is viewed here. For many of Mount Vernon's years as a historic site, it had a central feature: the lavishly restored home in its luxuriant setting on the Potomac. Little attention was paid to Washington's ownership of slaves, his innovation in farming and business, or his personal story. Visitors waited in long lines to walk through the hallways of his home and shuffled out. Some visitors made it to the gardens and to Washington's tomb and then left.

Today, the visit to the home is only one stop, a piece of the Washington puzzle, even if it remains the centerpiece. No longer is Washington's world frozen in 1799, the year he died, and which is portrayed at his home. The intent is to give visitors a view of the rest of Washington's life, even if that means using theatrics that might surprise traditionalists.

A visit to Mount Vernon best begins along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, which follows the arc of the Potomac from Washington to Old Town Alexandria, with its cobblestone streets and restored buildings, and then to the wooded shores that lead to Washington's home. The journey can be made by car on the parkway, by foot or bicycle on a scenic, winding path, or by tour boat in warmer months.

After arriving at Mount Vernon, visitors are directed to the new Ford Orientation Center. From its spacious lobby, featuring a scale model of the mansion with walls that slide down to reveal its intricacies, visitors enter one of two new theaters to watch a film about Washington's life. Produced by a Hollywood team for $5 million, the 20-minute mini-epic portrays Washington as a swashbuckling hero, showing him falling in love with Martha, battling with Native Americans, and defeating the British. But the film mostly leaves unexplored the ethical questions about Washington's ownership of slaves and westward expansion into Native American territory.

After leaving the orientation center, the visitor moves to the traditional tour of Washington's home. The rooms are lighted by faux candlelight and filled both with the trappings of wealth and the more ordinary objects of a lived-in home. The dining table is set elegantly, as if guests are about to arrive. Slippers have been left by the bedside, and skeins of yarn lie on a chair.

Outside, visitors stroll the grounds or rest in rocking chairs in a columned piazza, admiring the curve of the Potomac. The gentle hills across the river have been guarded from development, preserving the view and giving visitors a sense of the past on a grand scale.

After the mansion tour, the visitor has the option to take in the riverfront below or the working farm with its unique 16-sided barn, or to wander the forest trail or the gardens. Visitors then come to the reconstructed quarters where some of more than 300 slaves lived; the cramped dwellings stand in stark contrast to Washington's opulent home.

Now, instead of ending the tour, it is on to the museum and education center, which takes at least a couple of hours to explore. The museum showcases more than 500 artifacts related to Washington, many of them drawn from Mount Vernon's collection of 30,000 items. In one gallery, amid buckles and buttons, is a pair of spurs from Washington's boots. At Valley Forge, so the story goes, Washington gave the spurs to a soldier who then rode to Boston for supplies.

In the final room, a pair of golden pheasants peer solemnly from their glass case. Preserved for a taxidermy museum, these birds roamed the grounds in Washington's day.

The separate education center is designed to appeal particularly to families with children, using films and theatrics to engage the visitor. Short films produced by The History Channel are shown on screens throughout, featuring reenactments and commentators from the present. A diorama depicts the battle of Fort Necessity, Washington's first battle and the opening engagement of the French and Indian War in 1754. It depicts the dying soldiers, the attack from the forest, and on the next wall, a piece of the fort is mounted for display. In another room, visitors can learn about Washington's religious beliefs and sit in a replica of his family church pew. Another exhibit includes a video in which Washington's slave ownership is discussed.

As visitors step through the stages of Washington's life, they encounter life-size models of the man. To determine what Washington looked like, Mount Vernon enlisted a team of forensic investigators. They faced a complicated challenge: No portraits were made of Washington before he was 40, and those that do exist differ in interpretation. The specialists turned to other sources for clues, such as his dentures and the measurements of his clothing. In addition, the investigators used a terra-cotta bust made of Washington's face when he was 53, using a three-dimensional laser scanner to computerize and enhance the image.

Using these hints, the scientists created three models of Washington at different stages of his life: as a young surveyor, as commander in chief during the Revolutionary War, and as the new president. To see Washington like this is to view the man as he has not been seen in centuries.

And to see Mount Vernon in its new incarnation is to appreciate anew why Washington so valued this landscape. On a recent unseasonably warm winter's day, the Potomac fairly glistened as visitors ambled toward the riverfront. Washington's words come to life. "No estate in the United States," he wrote, "is more pleasantly situated than this."

Contact Michael Kranish at kranish@globe.com.

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