Preservation of Mount Vernon

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1860

Mount Vernon was the legacy of one great man. Preserving it was the work of many great women.

The Mount Vernon estate had been in George Washington’s family since 1674. Our first President grew up there, and managed the classic Federal-style house and large surrounding farm after inheriting it in the mid-1750s. He toiled hard and much improved both the home and the estate.

After Washington’s death in 1799, though, the property started to go downhill. His descendants didn’t have his management skills, endurance, or success. By 1853 they had given up on the place.

Some outsiders were unwilling to see Mount Vernon go to wrack and ruin. Ann Cunningham, a South Carolinian who had grown up on a plantation herself, was shocked and saddened when she saw the state of Mount Vernon during a family sail up the Potomac River. If America’s men could not keep this founder’s home in repair, she thought, perhaps the women of his country could succeed.

Cunningham sent a letter to a Charleston newspaper in 1853, appealing to the women of the South to save the estate. In 1854 she founded the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. By 1858, despite tensions along the Potomac just prior to the Civil War, she had raised enough money to try to buy the house. John Washington (the President’s great-grandnephew) refused. Undeterred, Cunningham met with his wife, and promptly completed a sale for $200,000. Thousands of Americans donated to fund the purchase price, and the association took possession of the nearly empty home in February 1860.

Resisting suggestions to turn the estate into a memorial park, Cunningham wanted to restore and preserve it as it had been in Washington’s day (an unusual idea at the time). With an impressive campaign of fundraising and publicity, the ladies’ association was able to raise large sums of money, jumpstarting America’s historic preservation movement. Over time, as restoration techniques have improved and the collection of furniture and décor has grown, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association has been able to very closely re-create the house’s appearance in 1799, the year Washington died.

Today, the association remains a case study in effective grassroots conservation. It still manages the estate, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit governed by a board of regents (all women) from almost 30 states, without any funds from federal, state, or local governments. It employs 500 staff and 400 volunteers, raises and manages an annual budget of $45 million, and has domain over approximately 500 of the original 8,000 acres of the plantation. Mount Vernon is the most popular historic estate in the country, hosting an average of one million guests per year—and over 80 million since it was opened to the public.

In 2012, a new National Library for the Study of George Washington opened on the Mount Vernon grounds, funded by private donors including the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation—which has committed $69 million in recent years for projects at Mount Vernon, including a museum and education center in addition to the new library.