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First in the Homes of His Countrymen

First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington's Mount Vernon in the American Imagination

Lydia Mattice Brandt
Copyright Date: 2016
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    First in the Homes of His Countrymen
    Book Description:

    Over the past two hundred years, Americans have reproduced George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation house more often, and in a greater variety of media, than any of their country's other historic buildings. In this highly original new book, Lydia Mattice Brandt chronicles America's obsession with the first president's iconic home through advertising, prints, paintings, popular literature, and the full-scale replication of its architecture.

    Even before Washington's death in 1799, his house was an important symbol for the new nation. His countrymen used it to idealize the past as well as to evoke contemporary--and even divisive--political and social ideals. In the wake of the mid-nineteenth century's revival craze, Mount Vernon became an obvious choice for architects and patrons looking to reference the past through buildings in residential neighborhoods, at world's fairs, and along the commercial strip. The singularity of the building's trademark piazza and its connection to Washington made it immediately recognizable and easy to replicate.

    As a myriad of Americans imitated the building's architecture, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association carefully interpreted and preserved its fabric. Purchasing the house in 1859 amid intense scrutiny, the organization safeguarded Washington's home and ensured its accessibility as the nation's leading historic house museum. Tension between popular images of Mount Vernon and the organization's "official" narrative for the house over the past 150 years demonstrates the close and ever-shifting relationship between historic preservation and popular architecture.In existence for roughly as long as the United States itself, Mount Vernon's image has remained strikingly relevant to many competing conceptions of our country's historical and architectural identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3926-1
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments (pp. ix-xi)
  4. Introduction (pp. 1-8)

    Mount Vernon stands atop a hill in Montevallo, Alabama. “Washington Hall” is the focal point of the 183-acre campus of the “American Village.” It reproduces the distinctive three-part composition, color scheme, rusticated (faux stone) siding, and cupola of George Washington’s iconic Virginia plantation house. The building’s interior boasts a version of the “New Room,” Mount Vernon’s largest and most elaborate space, as well as the principal chamber of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. The White House’s Oval Office occupies one of its two connected service buildings (or dependencies), complete with Ronald Reagan’s beloved jellybeans and the Resolute desk preferred by John F....

  5. 1 Prints and Pilgrimage 1790s–1850s (pp. 9-40)

    Early Americans loved Mount Vernon because George Washington did.¹ He wrote in 1790: “I had rather be at Mount Vernon with a friend or two about me, than to be attended at the seat of government by the officers of state and the representatives of every power in Europe.”² Mount Vernon was central to the creation of Washington’s celebrity, both as imagined by his contemporaries and fashioned by the man himself. The plantation’s distinctive house and prosperous agricultural operations bolstered the dedicated republican’s overwhelmingly positive public image. Mount Vernon signified his personal sacrifices and the place to which he selflessly...

  6. 2 “Keep It the Home of Washington!” The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, 1854–1890 (pp. 41-80)

    As the public’s imagination of Mount Vernon grew more vivid, people became increasingly concerned about its fate; its sagging piazza and the crumbling tomb inspired many to declare the place a “burning shame.”¹ Outcry lambasted everyone from the owner, John Augustine Washington III, for not adequately maintaining Mount Vernon to the state and federal governments for refusing to purchase it for the public. As the nation divided, the present condition and questionable future of Mount Vernon became a metaphor for the fractured union.

    In 1858, the painter Thomas Prichard Rossiter verbalized the nation’s anxiety over the future of Mount Vernon:...

  7. 3 Replicas, Replicas, Replicas 1890s–1920s (pp. 81-126)

    With its interiors fully furnished and its architecture conserved, Mount Vernon was a prime candidate to embody the ideal American house and home at the turn of the century.¹ A 1906 article in Atlantic Monthly called Mount Vernon the “ideal country home of the republican gentleman.” Twenty years later,Garden & Home Buildercontinued to claim it as the “perfect example of the Colonial country house” and “the very fountainhead of American traditions and ideals.”² Its supposed simplicity, tales of its legendary hospitality, and its intimate connection to the nation’s most revered hero guaranteed its position as a model American...

  8. 4 Battles of “Authenticity” Replicas and Research in the 1930s (pp. 127-160)

    Building on the momentum established by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association’s preservation efforts, three imitative world’s fair pavilions, and a growing number of replicas, the popularity of Mount Vernon skyrocketed in the 1930s. The decade’s celebration of the bicentennial of George Washington’s birth and continued commercialization of the Colonial Revival offered opportunities for Mount Vernon to charm even bigger audiences.¹

    Mount Vernon’s iconic visage had proven to be both flexible and deeply meaningful by the 1930s. A variety of products banked on its most well-established ideals, emphasizing the building’s southern hospitality and refined, patriotic simplicity. A magazine advertisement for Mount...

  9. 5 “In This Changing and Troubled World” Social History and the American Roadside, 1950s–1980s (pp. 161-198)

    In 1952, one year before the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association celebrated its centennial, Mount Vernon passed a tremendous milestone: more than 1 million tourists visited the mansion in a single year.¹ The Saturday Evening Post featured Mount Vernon in its “Face of America” campaign, calling it a “noble shrine to one of the noblest Americans.”² Thirty years later, numbers of paying tourists at Mount Vernon were plunging and the MVLA was under intense fire for its interpretation of the site. In a scathing article in theWashington Post, the reporter Dorothy Gilliam lambasted the MVLA’s presentation of slavery at the...

  10. Conclusion (pp. 199-200)

    More than two hundred years after the death of George Washington, Mount Vernon remains the country’s most famous house and one of its most identifiable symbols. The endurance of its image is a testament to the building’s flexibility. Through two centuries of preservation, pilgrimage, and replication, each successive generation has chosen how and what to remember about Mount Vernon. It has been a stage on which Americans act out their idealizations of a graceful past or a screen onto which they project the nation’s flaws. It can reference a vaguely imagined world gone by or signify a very particular set...

  11. Notes (pp. 201-264)
  12. Bibliographic Essay (pp. 265-268)
  13. Illustration Credits (pp. 269-270)
  14. Index (pp. 271-284)