Washington's artistic legacy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

"You see lots of houses that incorporate some of Mount Vernon's elements, mostly the big porch with the columns or pillars," Pogue observes. "Some realize it's Mount Vernon's influence, but many don't. It's worked its way into the building subconscious that this is what a colonial design looks like. If you trace it back, it's clearly Mount Vernon."

One of the most important innovations to come out of Mount Vernon, Pogue says, is the piazza or large covered porch.

There is no evidence of anything like it in the US before Washington built it. The piazza provides a wonderful view of the Potomac, plus it helps to finish off the house, which might otherwise look ungainly.

Some observers consider it a very democratic architectural feature, unlike the dome Thomas Jefferson chose for his Monticello. "You can put a porch on almost anything," Pogue explains. "Domes are hard for people to adapt, but porches aren't. They are very functional and provide a living space that even today, people find very attractive."

Another area where Pogue believes Washington deserves credit for detecting a design problem and coming up with a solution is the arched colonnade connecting the house to two outbuildings, one a servants' hall and the other the kitchen.

Though colonnades were common in England, Washington made his open on both sides, an innovation that again took advantage of the view.

"The piazza and colonnade are transitional indoor-outdoor spaces that establish a linkage between house and landscape," Pogue says. "The house becomes part of its surroundings."

Washington, Pogue says, saw the potential in the grounds, considered among the most beautiful on the East Coast. He reorganized the pinched, geometric gardens to be less formal, replaced a center driveway with a large bowling green, put in serpentine walkways, and corresponded with a famous English agricultural theorist about the best plant varieties.

At the same time, he didn't neglect Mount Vernon's interior. His desire to be fashionable was evident in everything from the choice of bright room colors, such as verdigris green in the dining room, to the faux mahogany graining in the entryway.

Besides Mount Vernon, Pogue believes Washington's greatest architectural legacy may be the world-renowned city that bears his name.

Although Washington didn't design any of the buildings, Pogue says he played a major role in conceptualizing the federal city, the design of which has stood the test of time.

"He was instrumental in the design, with its monumental core," Pogue notes. "He was the one who chose [Pierre-Charles] L'Enfant as the architect. Their ideas were perfectly synchronized."

Ironically, L'Enfant proved a prickly character who antagonized many who dealt with him. This eventually led Washington to dismiss him.

L'Enfant's design, though, wasn't scrapped. Through a combination of factors, however, it came to fruition slowly, not really being completed until this century.

Speaking of Washington, Pogue concludes, "He was really a visionary. Almost everything he did during his last 20 years or so is at least partially with an eye toward the future. He was so conscious ... of all the precedent he was setting."

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