Home was where Washington's heart lay

The first president cared passionately about Mount Vernon, and his architectural influence rivals Jefferson's, a new book says.

May 16, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In New York, George Washington is more than a household name. Streets, avenues, a park, two bridges and a magnificent marble triumphal arch all bear his name. And this year, the city is marking the bicentennial of his death with exhibitions, books and lectures. New York loves George Washington.

But the feeling was not necessarily reciprocal. As indicated in "Washington's New York," an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York that runs through July 4, New York was a tough town for Washington. He suffered his greatest military defeat in the Revolutionary War here, and in 1783, when the British finally evacuated the city, he promptly left; he gave his famous farewell address to his officers at Samuel Fraunces' tavern and took a ferry to New Jersey, en route to Annapolis to resign his commission.

He returned to the city as president in 1789, because New York was the first capital of the United States. That year he contracted what was then called anthrax (an abscess that took three months to heal), and in 1790 he caught pneumonia. In August of that year he left New York, never to return.

As first lady, Martha Washington held an open house on Friday evenings at the first presidential mansion, on lower Broadway near Bowling Green, when she and, often, the president would entertain visitors with ice cream and lemonade.

The museum show includes a misspelled letter she wrote in October 1789 in which she complained: "I lead a very dull life hear and know nothing that passes in the town. ... Indeed I think I am more like a state prisoner than anything else. There is certain bounds set for me which I must not depart from -- and as I cannot doe as I like I am obstinate and stay at home a great deal."

"Washington's heart was in Virginia," said Deborah Dependahl Waters, the curator of decorative arts and manuscripts at the museum, who organized the show.

Washington's spiritual home was always Mount Vernon. And a new book by Allan Greenberg, an architect and architectural historian, explores Washington's passion for his house and analyzes the architecture and landscape of Mount Vernon as one might study a great American antique.

The book, "George Washington Architect," is to be published in June by Andreas Papadakis.

"Mount Vernon was Washington's lifelong preoccupation," Greenberg says. "The bulk of his correspondence deals with the farm."

In his book, Greenberg quotes Washington's detailed letters of instruction to his estate managers throughout the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention and his first term of office.

"It is clear from Washington's voluminous correspondence that from the time he took possession of Mount Vernon until his death 45 years later [in 1799], the condition of the house and surrounding farms was always in the forefront of his mind," Greenberg writes. "His letters reveal his passionate preoccupation with every aspect of daily life."

In studying Mount Vernon, Greenberg -- who has taught at Yale University's schools of architecture and law, the University of Pennsylvania and the Department of Historic Preservation at Columbia University -- considered form, plan, design and execution.

He argues that Washington deliberately designed Mount Vernon to be asymmetrical in plan and elevation, inside and out. None of the four facades of the estate is symmetrical. The doors and windows, even the cupola, are slightly off center. Similarly, the interior elevations are asymmetrical.

"The circulation through the rooms is deliberately informal," Greenberg said. "None of the doors line up with each other."

Greenberg said Washington considered asymmetry "a design theme that unifies the house." As he explained: "Bringing the informality of a vernacular farmhouse into a great mansion was very unusual. Washington was preoccupied with asymmetry in a way that has become important as a model for Americans who built houses in the 19th and 20th centuries."

Indeed, in Greenberg's view, these designs showed Washington's desire, as an amateur architect, to give the house a distinctly American style. He postulates that Washington's contribution to American architecture, landscape architecture and city planning rivals that of Thomas Jefferson, who is usually seen as the president who had the most influence on American architecture.

When Washington inherited Mount Vernon from the widow of his half-brother Lawrence, it was 1,280 square feet, with four rooms flanking a center hall.

He added two floors and extensions on either side: a large dining room to the north and a study to the south. He put on the 90-foot-long porch overlooking the majestic Potomac River and two open arcades to link the house to the dependencies on either side.

By the time he was finished, the house and outbuildings totaled nearly 20,000 square feet. As Greenberg writes, "Between 1754, when he first leased Mount Vernon, and his death in 1799, Washington increased the size of the estate from 2,126 acres to more than 8,000 acres, or 12.5 square miles."

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