I visited Mount Vernon shortly after new museums opened in 2007 and shared this story in Chesapeake Family Magazine. I still love the old house and grounds, but believe the addition of state-of-the- art technology in the museums makes a visit or return mandatory.
New Museums: Grand Old House
George Washington sleeps in his tomb at Mount Vernon, as he has for the past 210 years. However, most Americans believe he slept in every city, state, and tavern up and down the east coast during his 67 years of life. Confusing myths grow like vines on a forgotten gravestone, intertwined with few facts about the real George.
To awaken national interest and debunk untrue stories, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association spearheaded a $100 million campaign. They built new educational centers and a museum mostly underground — leaving the original, tranquil grounds undisturbed. The decade-long project was completed two years ago — in time to celebrate GW’s 275th birthday.
Visitors discover rarely seen glimpses of our first president, through the action-adventure move, “We Fight to be Free,” featured in the Ford Orientation Center . Young Washington, a British officer under General Braddock, encounters a violent attack during the French and Indian War. Braddock is mortally wounded, so GW takes charge of the regiment, though, in this battle they are defeated.
In addition, guests may be surprised to learn that as a plantation owner, George experimented with crop rotation, ran a lucrative fishery and owned the largest whiskey distillery in the colonies.
Another exhibit drawing attention is an intricately crafted dollhouse, an exact one-twelfth replica of the mansion. Fifty miniaturists spend over five years creating flickering candle lights and fireplaces that glow, needlepoint rugs, hand-painted china and bedrooms prepared for guests (apparently a common practice for the Washingtons, as they had 637 overnight visitors one year).
Some choose to tour the historic estate and gardens, hike to the tomb or visit (April- October) the working Pioneer Farm. Others proceed directly to the Reynolds Education Center and Museum, featuring state-of-the-art galleries, interactive displays and five additional theaters.
The exhibits teach through an osmosis-like process, slipping knowledge into the minds of children and teens without their notice. The atmosphere is a pleasing new-age design: a combination of a natural history museum with Disney-type animated motion, wax figures Madame Tussard would envy, a theater in the round and computer games. Despite all the gadgetry, the presentation retains a reverence for the genteel hero, without sugar coating his lifestyle or his era.
My teenage daughter raved about the Revolutionary War film, complete with seats that rumble during cannon fire and falling snowflakes during scenes re-enacting the crossing of the Delaware.
Toddlers explore the hands-on history room, bursting with child-sized colonial costumes, a push-button mural that produces the sound farm animals and 18-th century toys.
I overheard a teenage girl joke that a forensically age-reversed wax replica of nineteen-year-old George liked “sorta hot.” A father and son jumped with fright when a surprising cough arose from a lifelike sleeping soldier, encamped at a reconstruction of Valley Forge.
Most tourists seem fascinated by the famous false teeth, encased similar to the crown jewels’ display in London. The dentures aren’t wood, but human and animal teeth sunk into a metal contraption. No wonder the picture on the dollar bill depicts a puffy-faced George.
The Reynolds Museum, another 6,000 square-foot complex, houses over 500 Washington artifacts including a portrait gallery, Martha’s table set for entertaining, a war room full of military memorabilia, jewelry displays and original documents. History buffs savor the previously unseen treasures.
By George, anyone wishing to learn about Washington and our country’s past can triumph at Mount Vernon . The place isn’t asleep; it’s awake with new energy and dancing (not on Washington’s grave), but under a slumbering old homestead.
If you go:
Mount Vernon is located in Virginia, just 16 miles from downtown Washington, DC. The estate is open 365 days a year and includes on-site dining options. Usual admission fees are $15 for adults, Seniors are $14, youth ages 6-11 are $7 and children 5 and under are free.
The Distillery is open from April to October.
Visit www.mountvernon.org for additional information.