Washington's artistic legacy
If George Washington were alive today, hardware stores might advertise, "George Washington shopped here." Or maybe HGTV would invite him to host a gardening or decorating show.Skip to next paragraph
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Yes, Martha, your husband was more of a home-improvement buff than many of us know.
"He's been monumentalized to such a degree that most people have a hard time grasping George Washington as a real person," says Dennis Pogue, the director of restoration at George Washington's Mount Vernon: Estate & Gardens in Mount Vernon, Va.
"This year we're bringing attention to aspects of his life that people don't normally think about," says Dr. Pogue. This includes architecture, design, and gardening.
The occasion is the bicentenniel of Washington's death, which is being recognized with touring exhibits, new books, and numerous educational projects.
At Mount Vernon earlier this year, a ribbon-cutting ceremony celebrated "the most authentic presentation of the first president's home in 200 years."
When the mansion became a national shrine in 1858, only a handful of items remained from the Washington family. Many 18th-century pieces have been used to furnish the house, but until now, only about 30 percent belonged to Washington. This year that figure is close to 50 percent.
Pieces from private and public collections around the United States have been borrowed to create a once-in-a-lifetime preservation experience.
Mount Vernon, for sure, is no ordinary place. It's upper, upper end in terms of American housing, a mansion set on 500 acres overlooking the Potomac River.
Washington never occupied the White House, which wasn't built until he left office in 1797, so he wanted his home to be a special destination for visiting dignitaries, as well as a symbol for American domestic life.
An amateur architect, he nearly doubled the size of the house after the Revolution, and Americans have been adding on to their own homes ever since.
Pogue calls Washington a "guy who was very much in tune with the messages sent by the clothes you wear and the house you live in."
Architects were a rarity in 18th century America and it usually fell to the land owner to direct building projects. Washington clearly relished the role of do-it-yourself designer and often reached for English pattern books, which included drawings of architectural details such as doors and windows.
"He went to the pattern books and selected certain things he wanted, then combined them with his own ideas and probably with the ideas he got from seeing other people's houses," Pogue says. The result is arguably the most recognized colonial building in American history and in all likelihood the most copied.
"It's amazing how many Mount Vernons are out there," Pogue says, citing the countless banks, clubhouses, funeral homes, fraternity and sorority houses, and residences that are Mount Vernon knockoffs. For many years, Howard Johnson restaurants owed their cupola-accented roofs to Mount Vernon's influence.