Mount Vernon: simple elegance from the 18th century
Mount Vernon, Va.
Mount Vernon, the famous home of George and Martha Washington, is taking on a different look. Its rooms are being returned to the way the interior of the mansion appeared in 1799, the year of George Washington's death.Skip to next paragraph
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Some visitors who know the historic house well have registered surprise and sometimes dismay about the changes that have taken place. They liked Mount Vernon the way they remembered it, despite the fact that over the years it had become embellished with Victorian-era overdressing and made even more comfortable and cluttered by latter-day decorating influences.
More recently, the interiors of Mount Vernon, along with those of Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, and the Governor's Mansion in Colonial Williamsburg, have been ''reinterpreted'' on scientifically based guidelines.
The Washingtons, it is now known, didn't use lots of furniture. Curator Christine Meadows explains that the west parlor was simply furnished with a sofa , one table, and 11 chairs. Rooms were generally rather sparsely furnished. ''The Washingtons needed lots of floor space to accommodate their frequent visitors who came with families, servants, and many trunks,'' she explains.
The floors in the mansion, it has been discovered, were bare pine boards. And the colors on the walls were far bolder and more pungent than the creams and soft pastels that have decorated the walls in recent years.
''We have overwhelming documentation on Mount Vernon,'' explains Miss Meadows , who has been curator since 1960. With the mansion furnishings committee, she has been responsible for the presentation of the furnishings in the house and for their authentication.
''We have not one, but two, inventories of the house,'' she says, ''one done after General Washington's death, and the second prepared after Martha Washington passed on a few years later.''
And, she notes, since Washington probably saved every scrap of paper he ever wrote, ''We also have much of his correspondence with his farm managers and his overseers during the years he was away, his orders for goods from England, and all his surviving diaries. These all give us a pretty good insight as to what the house looked like.''
Until recently nobody thought to examine a chip of paint under a microscope. Using new sophisticated paint-analysis techniques, Matthew Mosca, architectural conservator, has uncovered Mount Vernon's original color scheme. He had to work his way down through 20 to 22 layers of paint to arrive at the true 18th-century colors the Washingtons chose. These have now been restored to the walls of the mansion, including the bright, intense Prussian blue on the walls of the dow/stairs bedroom and west parlor.
Mr. Mosca began wozk on the $90,000 paint restoration xr/ject in December 1979. According to Historic Preservation magazine, his research has ''turned previously held notions of Colonial color schemes and decoration on their ear. . . . Despite the limited number of pigments available in 18th-century America, Mount Vernon, it turns out, was a veritable rainbow: vivid blues, lemon yellows, undulating greens, and bright copper.''
Washington seems to have had a particular preference for green, a color he found ''grateful to the eye'' and not likely to fade. The colors were replaced with the same materials and techniques used in the 18th century. Eighteen rooms have been completed, and work has begun on the two third-floor bedrooms.
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which owns, preserves, and manages the estate, has committed itself to having all the rooms reflect the appearance they had when George Washington lived here.