What could be better for Washington's Birthday than a visit to northern Virginia? Here, where the countryside -- only minutes from the nation's capital -- is rich in sites that tell of the day-to-day life of ``The Father of Our Country.'' It was in his home state of Virginia that George Washington became imbued with the spirit of independence. It was his beloved home, Mount Vernon, a regal estate high above the Potomac River, that he yearned for during the long, hard years of the Revolution -- and through his presidency. Countless tales and pictures have made the handsome white mansion familiar to most of us. Seeing it firsthand makes one feel closer to the nation's first President.
But, as fascinating and historically important as Mount Vernon may be, Washington's varied interests often took him beyond his estate. And, today, many of these places welcome visitors.
Washington adopted the bustling town of Alexandria, an easy 10-mile horseback or carriage ride from Mount Vernon, as his ``hometown.'' It was here that he looked for the amenities that corresponded with his pleasures and concerns.
Typically, as well as catering to travelers, old-time taverns were centers for political conferences and business meetings. Gadsby's Tavern, housed in adjoining buildings -- one built in 1770 and the other in 1792 -- was the place where Washington dropped by to chat with friends and to discuss business matters. He also marked his birthdays at celebrations, called ``birthnight balls,'' in the tavern's ballroom. In 1798, the tavern was the setting for a more serious occasion when Washington stood on the steps to review the Alexandria Independent Infantry Blues, a company of militia volunteers.
Christ Church, attended by Washington, is also in Alexandria. It is a Georgian-style building of native brick laid in the English and Flemish bond by workmen brought to this country just for this task. It was completed in 1773 as one of two churches built to house a growing population.
Washington's deep regard for his place of worship may have been why he chose the church grounds as the place to urge the colonies to withdraw their allegiance from England. Here, he voiced his readiness to fight to establish the independence of the colonies. Nine years later when independence had been won, Washington returned to his beloved Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. The next day, he was back in still-preserved pew No. 60 in Christ Church.
The 330-foot tower and building of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, on Alexandria's historic Shooters Hill, is relatively new. It focuses on Washington's life and leadership. Dominated by a 17-foot bronze statue of Washington, the impressive collection features varied insights into the man. His Bible is on display along with other memorabilia. The Memorial Library holds a large collection of rare books and manuscripts pertaining to the first President's life.
George Washington carved 2,000 choice riverfront acres from the grounds of Mount Vernon as a wedding gift for his foster daughter, Eleanor (Nelly) Parke Custis, and his nephew, Lawrence Lewis. The newlyweds contracted Dr. William Thornton, the first architect of the United States Capitol, to design their home. Four years later the Lewises moved into their new home, named Woodlawn, bringing much of their furniture from Mount Vernon.
After the Lewises' time, Woodlawn was occupied by an anthropologist, a playwright, a group of Quakers, and a United States senator. Each resident left a personal mark. Now a property of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Woodlawn offers a unique opportunity to see how a home is changed by the styles of passing eras.
Among the well-to-do planters of northern Virginia, George Mason played a special role in the life of George Washington. He was a neighbor who shared Washington's fervor for independence. Mason helped draft many of the key documents that led to freedom -- including the Bill of Rights. But his contributions were made behind the scenes, from his comfortable brick-and-stone home.
The stately Georgian beauty of Mason's Gunstan Hall, with a clear vista over a deer park to the Potomac River, is much as it was in the 18th century.
The grounds are a romantic picture of the elegance -- and conveniences -- prized among the wealthy. Summer houses frame the view of the river where sailing ships once loaded Mason's crops. The kitchen, laundry, dairy buildings, and smokehouse -- even the schoolhouse attended by Mason's nine children -- are as they were in the 1700s. The formal gardens contain only plants commonly grown in the 18th century. The English boxwood all'ee, planted by Mason, now stands 12 feet high.
Inside, the dining room and front parlor are considered outstanding. The dining room was the first in America to be decorated in the ``Chinese style.'' The furnishings, many of them Mason family pieces and most in the American Chippendale style, were all made before 1800.
This is a sampling of the Virginia that was familiar to George Washington. Visitors to even a few of the sites find a rich pattern of living typical of the early days of our country.
Mount Vernon, 10 miles south of Alexandria on the George Washington Parkway. Open daily, March 1 to Oct. 31, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; from Nov. 1 to Feb. 28, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission: $4, adults; $3, senior citizens; $1.50 children, 6 to 11. Gadsby's Tavern Museum, 134 North Royal Street, Alexandria. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission: $2, adults; $1.75, senior citizens; $1, children, 6 to 17. Christ Church, Cameron and North Washington Streets, Alexandria. Open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Contributions accepted. George Washington Masonic National Memorial, King and Callahan Streets, Alexandria. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day. Tours, every 45 minutes, begin at 9:15 a.m. Afternoon tours begin at 12.30. Woodlawn Plantation, south of Alexandria on S1; 3 miles from Mount Vernon via Route 235. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission: $3, adults; $2.50, senior citizens; $1.50, students. Gunstan Hall, 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. via I-95 or the George Washington Parkway to US 1 to Route 242 on the Potamac River. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Christmas.