Mount Vernon boosts Washington's image

Orientation center, museum to be added to grounds of Mount Vernon


WASHINGTON - Curators at Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington, say that an orientation center and museum will be added to the grounds in an effort to strengthen his reputation as the indispensable man of U.S. history.

The estate, about 14 miles outside Washington across the Potomac River in Virginia, already attracts more than 1 million visitors a year.

Cost: $85 million

The new construction, estimated to cost $85 million, is needed, Mount Vernon officials said, because too few Americans know that without Washington, not only would the colonies have failed to win independence, but the Constitution and the presidency would probably have taken vastly different forms.

For instance, the officials noted, many of the founding fathers became convinced that a president was a good idea - and would not lead to tyranny or autocratic rule - only after knowing that Washington would be the first one.

It was also Washington who gave the presidency meaning and shape, while resisting the trappings that would confer an aura of monarchy.

"He wanted to make sure no one thought the president was king, but he had to be important, grand enough to deal with kings," said Jim Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director.

The new orientation center and museum at Mount Vernon will make such points to its visitors.

50,000 square feet

The center plans to show a 15-minute film produced by Dreamworks, and the museum will feature interactive exhibits and some of the 40,000 letters Washington is estimated to have written.

The museum and orientation center will be near the main entrance, taking up 50,000 square feet, but 60 percent of their structures will be underground to reduce any disruptions to the landscape. Construction is scheduled to begin next year, and is expected to end in 2006.

Roughly 65 percent of the $85 million has already been raised, officials said, including $15 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas, the largest donation in Mount Vernon's history.

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