Mount Vernon is cool - but controversial Modernity: Installation of air conditioning will make the mansion more comfortable, but some preservationists believe the system is a desecration of the historic house.

September 20, 1998|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,COX NEWS SERVICE

Nearly 200 years after George Washington died in an upstairs bedroom of his beloved mansion overlooking the Potomac River, Mount Vernon is getting air conditioning.

That's cool with most folks. Millions of summer visitors have sweated through tours of the carefully preserved Virginia home of the nation's first president, and electric fans are needed to keep guides from fainting in the stifling heat.

But a few preservationists are downright hot over the decision of Mount Vernon's governing board to install a $1 million, computerized climate-control system in one of America's most historic homes.

"I've died a thousand times over this," said Marc A. LeFrancois, Mount Vernon's former architectural curator, who resigned in protest over the air-conditioning issue.

"That place is so important," LeFrancois told the Associated Press. "To do that much damage for something that may not work, and probably won't work, is just unethical."

It was not a decision made lightly, conceded James Rees, resident director of the Mount Vernon Estate and Garden.

Built in 1735, Mount Vernon has survived for more than 250 years without air conditioning. During the sweltering summers, George and Martha Washington would dine outside on the portico to catch the breeze blowing in from the river. He loved the view. "No estate in the United States is more pleasantly situated than this," Washington wrote in 1793.

Tourists today see an estate that is much the same as in Washington's lifetime.

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association, America's oldest national historic preservation organization, raised $200,000 to purchase the 500-acre plantation from the first president's great-grandnephew in the 1850s and has owned and operated it ever since. More than 1 million visitors tour the 18th-century mansion and grounds each year, making it the nation's second most visited historic home, ranking behind only the White House.

This is a place where the past is revered. George Washington walked on the hardwood floors, chose the paintings on the parlor walls, wrote at the desk in the study, ate hoecakes and honey for breakfast in the small dining room, fretted over the nearby furrowed fields, and died in the four-poster bed upstairs. Change does not come easily here.

Indeed, Rees went to Rome to check out the Sistine Chapel's new air conditioning before agreeing that a similar system would work at Mount Vernon.

"I didn't get to talk to the pope" about BTUs and air ducts, said Rees. But he did hire the same company - Carrier Corp. - and the same engineer who designed and installed the system in the Sistine Chapel.

Final approval was granted in June, and the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) system is scheduled to be operating this autumn, in time for a yearlong bicentennial commemoration of Washington's death on Dec. 14, 1799.

After years of considering the pros and cons of air conditioning, Rees said that technological advances finally tipped the scales toward installation.

There are drawbacks, he acknowledged. The primary problem is that "you have to cut through original fabric in the mansion" to put in air ducts and other parts of the system.

Critics have decried this "irreversible" destruction of 18th-century plaster and wood. "It's extremely sad," Christine Meadows, a former Mount Vernon curator, said. However, this is not the first time such action has been deemed necessary, Rees pointed out. The original structure was cut to install electricity, heating, lighting and fire protection in earlier decades.

He said care is being taken to minimize damage to the original building and more than half of the air-conditioning vents were put in without destroying original fabric. The work was done inside closets and in other hidden areas wherever possible.

The second major concern was condensation. Mount Vernon is built of wood, and its historic planks are vulnerable to water damage.

This is where technology came in, Rees said. The computerized system will ensure that there is never enough difference in temperature and humidity to cause condensation. The formula is complex, said Rees, but basically the range will never be more than 15 degrees when the air conditioning is on. Thus, if the outside temperature is 100 degrees, the temperature inside Mount Vernon will be about 85 degrees.

"People rate below objects" in this equation, he acknowledged.

The entire project is aimed more at preserving the historic house and furnishings than at providing comfort for visitors and employees.

"In summer now, we do what George Washington did - open the doors and windows," said Rees. "That lets in dirt and dust and light," all of which can damage the historic furnishings. Carefully controlling the climate will help preserve the mansion's artifacts, he said.

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