Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, the beloved home of George and Martha Washington, is a place I recommend all our visitors see–its location here and Washington’s attachment to his plantation is why we have the capital in DC, after all. “No estate in United America is more pleasantly situated than this,” Washington wrote of Mount Vernon in 1790. Always a proud Virginia farmer, he finally retired here from public life, “a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of my own Vine & my own Fig-tree.”
Overlooking the sleepy river, the estate is stunning in any season: glowing with Christmas decorations and intimate candlelit tours in winter, fragrant with blooming trees in spring (Washington loved trees and called trees that bloom “clever trees”), lively with reenactments and fireworks in summer, and filled with music and harvest celebrations in fall.
The mansion, modest by European standards, is full of history. I love several of its inhabitants in particular (unfortunately, photography is not permitted inside). First, in the Central Passage, the grand entrance to the Washingtons’ home, hang an iron key and a drawing. The key once opened the Bastille, and the drawing depicts the destruction of that political prison during the French Revolution. These were gifts from the Marquis de Lafayette, who served under Washington during the American Revolution: “Give me leave, my dear General,” the Marquis wrote, disarmingly, “to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I had ordered its demolition, with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.”
Washington was evidently deeply moved by this present, carried from Europe by Thomas Paine. The key was carefully framed, and both of de Lafayette’s gifts were placed on display in the Central Passage, one of the first objects any visitor to the mansion would see, and where they remain today, virtually unmoved since 1790.
Second, is the original mirror in the large dining room, the New Room, the grandest chamber of the house. This is where the Washingtons entertained many important guests after the American Revolution. Look closer at the plaster molding: the General wanted to underline his pride in being a gentleman farmer and personally requested the stylized design of farming tools, tobacco and wheat (the two main crops of the plantation), and oak, olive, and grape leaves, symbols of national strength, peace, and, just as fittingly for Washington, the autumn harvest. Much of the furniture in the room is “of the period,” but not original to the estate. That’s why the mirror, the darker, more aged one of the two, is so fascinating. Whose reflections does it remember? It was in this room in 1789 that Washington was informed he had been unanimously elected by the Electoral College to be the first president of the United States. Ten years later, mourners shuffled through the New Room to look at Washington’s body before his burial in the family vault not far from the house.
My third favorite is the swivel chair in Washington’s study, arguably, the most interesting stop in the mansion because it offers a unique insight into Washington’s many interests. This was his sanctuary, where he began his days, often lighting his own fire at 4 in the morning, and where he wrote his letters, dispatched orders, and wrote in his diary before retiring for the night. The chair followed Washington throughout his presidency from New York and Philadelphia, to here, where he felt most at home. It is in this chair that he decided, among many important things, not to run for his third Presidential term, marking a peaceful transition in power and signalling that the young country was not defined by one person at its helm. There are many wonderful things to see in this room, and the guides do an excellent job of describing the main highlights: Washington’s books (over 800 in this room alone!), his globe (another object here that the General used throughout his presidency), a curious fan chair like the one Washington once ordered, a telescope, a travel case, and letters, letters everywhere.
The grounds of Mount Vernon, the main canvas for Washington’s passion in agricultural innovations, are just as impressive and ripe with history, not all of it flattering–the slave quarters, descriptions of slave life at Mount Vernon, and the memorial over unmarked slave graves are sobering against the backdrop of manicured gardens and vistas, creature comforts of the mansion, and tales of “perpetual & elegant Hospitality” at the plantation.
There is plenty to see at the estate: the visit can be as short as an hour or a lazy afternoon and as long as the whole day. The Mount Vernon website offers many recommendations for each day, and there is a food court and a restaurant to keep you fortified.
The year’s inevitable highlights for me are the spring and fall Wine Festival & Sunset Tours, happening during several days in May and September. Wines from the best Virginia wineries, live blues over the hill by the river, a tour of the mansion, unwinding in the setting sun, and an opportunity to soak it all in while relaxing on your picnic blanket (if the weather is nice, definitely bring one)–these are ingredients for a memorable evening.
Meanwhile, here are some snapshots from another festive occasion I attended at Mount Vernon: An American Celebration for 4th of July, a wonderful way to mark the nation’s birthday (a family tradition in the making, perhaps?). I keep missing the unique daytime fireworks over the river–absolutely forget about them as we head for lunch at the cozy Mount Vernon Inn instead (air conditioning!). One day…
As impressive as the drill and its costumed protagonists were, my favorite part of the 4th of July Celebration at Mount Vernon was, resolutely, the very moving swearing-in ceremony of the 100 newest U.S. citizens from 45 countries–what a memorable place and day to do this!
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