(Photo credit: Mount Vernon, courtesy Roger Wolstadt, Flickr Creative Commons)
Mount Vernon is a pretty popular name in America. Depending on which source you look up, you’ll find between 20 and 24 towns and municipalities called Mount Vernon all over the States. And there are hundreds of streets named Mount Vernon—including the one I live on. The popularity of this name isn’t hard to figure out: It comes from the fact that Mount Vernon was, and remains, the name of George Washington’s plantation home. It’s where he lived. And it’s still around today.
Mount Vernon stands overlooking the banks of the Potomac River, about 18 miles south of Washington, DC (which itself is no coincidence—Washington played a key role in the locating and construction of the nation’s capital, a story I’ll have to come back to sometime). Today the buildings and the surrounding area all look beautiful, thanks to the efforts of its non-profit making owners, the wonderfully anachronistically named Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Yes, Mount Vernon remains a privately owned property, independent of the federal government. There are no park rangers working at this site. The home’s income is derived from the sales of tickets and merchandise to visitors and from charitable donations.
The property covers about 500 acres, including the historic buildings and surrounding gardens as well as George and Martha’s tomb, a visitor center, education center and other adjacent lands.
We visited the place for the first time in September. On entry to the estate we were of course confronted with a visitor center. This is a new building, spacious and bright, though it has a strangely empty feel to it. There is a “Mount Vernon in Miniature” display—essentially a scale reproduction—in the main lobby. That’s interesting enough for a minute or two, but we didn’t want to dwell too long looking at a big dolls’ house when the real thing is only a few steps away.
We did, however, have to check out the obligatory short introductory film, played at regular intervals in the Ford Orientation Center. The 18-minute long film was made fairly recently, in 2006. It’s called “We Fight to be Free,” and is described on the official Mount Vernon web site as “inspiring.” A better description would be “over the top.” The Dutch-born director, Kees Van Oostrum, is actually a cinematographer by trade, having worked on a ton of TV movies, plus—and this is what probably got him the job—the two big blockbuster Civil War epics of recent years, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals.
There’s not a great deal of character development in the film. Washington is a famously enigmatic figure in history, and this feature does nothing to alter that; instead we’re being shown the Washington-as-legend version of history. Van Oostrum clearly wanted to amp up the action sequences—presumably to show off his cinematography chops. In particular, the extended scene showing the Battle of the Monongahela looks eerily familiar. This battle was fought back in 1755, at the beginning of the French and Indian War (which Washington helped to start, by the way). Washington was at the time a Colonial militia colonel marching alongside the regular British army under the command of General Edward Braddock. A British force was advancing on the enemy-held Fort Duquesne, a few miles away from present-day Pittsburgh, when it was attacked and defeated by a force of French, Canadians and Native Americans.
It’s interesting that, of all the battles Washington took part in, the director chose to make this the big set-piece battle scene for his feature—a battle where Washington was fighting with the British. I couldn’t help but notice that the director’s depiction of this battle, which takes up about a third of the film, rather too closely resembles a scene from The Last of the Mohicans (directed by Michael Mann in 1992) where a column of British soldiers in upstate New York is ambushed and wiped out by a band of Mohawk warriors. The two scenes look very similar. I kept expecting to see Daniel Day Lewis to jump out of the undergrowth to save the day. But in this version the day was to be saved by our hero, George Washington. There is some historical accuracy to that. When Braddock was mortally wounded it was in fact Washington who, under heavy fire, helped rally the troops and organized a more orderly retreat for the British forces. It does make Braddock look like an incompetent fool, which is a bit unfair to the historical record. Anyway, the director put a lot of attention—and surely most of the film’s budget—into this battle scene, with the focus on Washington, and the result does look quite cinematic. But it also looks more than a bit derivative. To be fair, both Mohicans and this section of the film are depicting the same war, although Mohicans is set in 1757, the war’s third year, whereas Monongahela took place in 1755. But I couldn’t help wondering whether Mr. Van Oostrum really would have given his eye teeth to have worked on the 1992 film.
My wife also was unable to take “We Fight to be Free” completely seriously, but for a quite different reason. The film has actor Sebastian Roche playing the lead role of Washington. Roche has been in a lot of stuff, mostly TV, but in particular he appears in a recurring part in the CW series Supernatural, which my wife has a strange addiction to. He plays the role of Balthazar, a rather cheeky fallen angel of heaven. Seeing him in this film caused a fit of the giggles that she struggled to suppress. This sort of thing is always a potential problem with specially made interpretive films. The “stars” of these features usually are not likely to be Oscar contenders. Instead, these actors are, to be honest, “second tier,” more often than not supporting themselves by appearing in ads or minor TV roles, often with a fantasy or sci-fi bent. Suddenly they’re up there on the “big screen” (in the historic site’s on-site theater) and have been elevated to the status of Major Historical Figure. Inevitably, some viewers are going to recognize them from their other, lesser roles and snigger at the incongruity.
Having made it through the film we headed over to the house itself. It’s actually something of a miracle that it’s still there at all. Construction of Mount Vernon was started in 1757 and continued in phases. The building reached its maximum extent in the 1770s. Following Washington’s death in 1799, however, the whole plantation passed through the hands of various relatives, none of whom had the means to maintain the estate. After about 50 years of this one of George’s descendants finally gave in and tried to sell it off. Neither the U.S. government nor the Commonwealth of Virginia was interested, and the house languished without a buyer for another 10 years. Then, in 1858, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association managed to acquire the house and some of the grounds for posterity and save it from complete dilapidation or destruction.
The tour of the house was very well organized as we were taken from the main line at the front through a side room for a quick introduction before being shepherded to the rear, where the house overlooks the river. The view there was magnificent and the land opposite looked, for the most part, as if it had been untouched by modern development. That is no accident. A couple of the guides told us about how back in the 1950s an oil company was looking to set up an oil refinery on the opposite shore. This led to a campaign to permanently protect the land over there from development. That effort eventually led to the federal government’s purchase of 4000 acres of land in the “viewshed” of Mount Vernon. That land today is Piscataway Park, Maryland, run by the National Park Service. Its prime reason for being is to allow for a view from Mt Vernon that is unsullied by modern industrial appendages. Not bad.
A great deal of effort has been taken to make sure the look and feel of the building and grounds are as accurate as possible. Living history staff and volunteers are on hand, for example around the farm and in the nearby smith’s shop. They are not “in character;” they talk to you like a normal person, which is always a relief.
From the rear of the Mount Vernon small groups of about a dozen at a time are led through the house. Rather than having a single tour guide lead each group through, the house has tour guides at key stations throughout, and groups are directed from one to the next. This is a more efficient system for high volume traffic when only small groups can be fed through a site at any one time. It wasn’t a particularly busy day when we visited, so the pressure was off, but it seemed like a well-run operation. (I wonder what the place is like during the peak months of April and May, when school trips to Mount Vernon can be overwhelming.)
The museum and education center was also pretty impressive. It’s another recent addition, opened in 2006. It’s split into two sections, which is a good idea. You can do all the “old-fashioned” museum artifacts in one bite. We did that first, on the advice of a volunteer, and that was the best move. There are some amazing original pieces of Washington’s life in there. We then jumped over to the technologically enhanced, interactive, whiz-bang sound-and-light stuff that makes up the other part of the center. This is also the side that inevitably will attract the school groups. This side has interactive screens, lifelike wax dummies of George Washington (I’d seen these when they had been on display at Philly’s National Constitution Center two years ago), and plenty of video presentations displaying different events from Washington’s life. Many of these are a bit over the top, verging on the hagiographic. We are left in no doubt that George Washington was clearly awesome in almost every way. His negatives were not exactly hidden, but they were definitely underplayed. Anyway, the biggest whiz-bang studio, depicting events from Washington’s command of the Continental Army, shows scenes of winter encampments that include actual snow (artificially produced, of course) falling from the ceiling. The school kids will get a big kick out of that, especially when it’s warm outside. One original artifact that made it over to the whiz-bang side is Washington’s set of false teeth—always a subject of fascination.
Overall, I was impressed by the professionalism shown by the staff at Mount Vernon. All the tour guides looked and acted professionally and courteously. They seemed knowledgeable about their subject. But I think the experience also verged on the hagiographic—that is, the emphasis on the man was a bit less critical than I would’ve liked. And the ever-contentious issue of slavery is still downplayed, I think. I missed the more nuanced approach I think the park service might have taken if it had been in charge. Still, the experience is more satisfying than at other founders’ homes, such as Jefferson’s Monticello or Madison’s Montpelier, both of which are also in the hands of private foundations. Also, we can’t forget that the park service didn’t start getting into the historic house preservation business till well into the 20th century, by which time Mt Vernon probably would have been long gone had it not been for the Mt Vernon Ladies Association.
After we’d done Mount Vernon we stopped at the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant next door, also part of the complex. I had a go at the Mount Vernon Harvest Ale, which was pretty good. We tried the peanut and chestnut soup, which was amazing. We also tried a couple of appetizers: the Hoe Cake and the fried Brie.
Mount Vernon was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Available at http://www.mountvernon.org/
Kees Van Oostrum. Internet Movie Database. Available at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0887635/?ref_=tt_ov_dr