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Saving Mount Vernon: The Birthplace of Preservation of America

February 15, 2003 - September 21, 2003

Co-organized by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association

West façade of Mount Vernon, 1991.
© Hal Conroy; courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
George Washington died at his beloved Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. Over the next five decades the proud and stately mansion passed to a succession of familial owners for whom the financial responsibilities of upkeep were overwhelming. By 1853, after failed attempts by Washington’s great-great nephew John A. Washington to sell the estate to the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the property had fallen into a state of severe disrepair. 

Portrait of Ann Pamela Cunningham, c. 1870; painted by James Reid Lambdin.
Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
IN THAT YEAR, South Carolinian Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, and began an unprecedented national campaign to purchase Mount Vernon and preserve it as an icon of American history. The effort came to be regarded as the birth of the historic preservation movement in America. The Association garnered the support of important political, financial, and intellectual leaders, and was able to take possession of Washington's home in 1860.

The Mansion Piazza in disrepair, 1858.
Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
WITH THE ESTATE IN POOR PHYSICAL CONDITION and nearly devoid of Washington family possessions, the Ladies organized themselves into committees to restore the mansion and grounds. The result was efficient grassroots fundraising, effective public relations, and a heightened awareness of the importance of historic preservation. The Ladies’ ability to raise an astonishing amount of money to buy and restore Washington’s home inspired women across the country, and the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association became a model for other organizations that came into existence in the 19th century as the historic preservation movement gained momentum.

Current view of the small dining room, 2002.
© Robert Lautman, 2002; courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
OVER THE PAST QUARTER CENTURY, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has made great strides in restoring Washington’s home to its actual appearance in 1799. Based on a groundbreaking analysis of the surviving layers of paint throughout the Mansion, the interior colors now are similar to the original hues chosen by Washington. In addition, new draperies and carpets have been reproduced based on descriptions and 18th-century fragments. Gradually, original pieces of furniture have been obtained and returned to their original rooms as indicated by historical documents. Through the use of new restoration techniques and careful historical research, Mount Vernon has been authentically restored to appear much as it did more than 200 years ago.

Mount Vernon in miniature, front view.
Courtesy Alumena and Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
One major feature of the exhibition is Mount Vernon in Miniature, on display for the first time in Washington, D.C. Designed and built by Stan Ohman and a team of miniaturists from Washington state, the Miniature, which took five years to complete, is an exact replica of the mansion and measures ten feet long, more than eight feet high, and nearly six feet wide.

The estate is open every day of the year and is located 16 miles south of Washington D.C. at the end of the George Washington Parkway.  For more information, visit www.mountvernon.org.


This exhibition is made possible by Ford Motor Company, which marked its Centennial in 2003.

The Museum gratefully acknowledges the contribution of the Mount Vernon Collection of Wood Mouldings donated by Smoot Lumber Company, manufactured by Rex Lumber Company.