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Curious About George?
A visit to newly-renovated Mount Vernon, George Washington's Estate in Northern Virginia
by Kathryn McKay

The folks at Mount Vernon were worried that the public's image of George Washington is becoming as worn out as an old one-dollar bill and our knowledge of him is just as flat.

"We have visitors who think that George Washington fought in the Civil War," says Nancy Hayward of Mount Vernon. "We even had a gentleman ask which president George Washington was. People don't ask questions to look stupid. They just don't know."

Polls prove Hayward's point. In 2005, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll found that when Americans ranked our greatest presidents, our Founding Father came in sixth place. In another 2005 poll conducted and released by Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, he was seventh behind Lincoln, Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy, Clinton and George W. Bush. In the Washington College poll, only 57 percent of adults under 19 knew the story of Washington and the cherry tree, compared to 91 percent of respondents over 50. And less than half could identify Washington's wife, Martha.

Mount Vernon's response? A new $110 million, 66,700-square foot complex opened October 27 on the grounds of Mount Vernon, the first president's estate in Northern Virginia. At the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, visitors will get to know the man who was a surveyor, a husband, a soldier, an entrepreneur, a stepfather, and more.

But don't expect to see grand new buildings on the estate when you arrive at Mount Vernon. Most of the complex is tucked under a four-acre pasture where sheep gaze, just like those that Washington raised at Mount Vernon. More than 65 trees, some as tall as 40 feet, further shield the new buildings from the surrounding historical area.

With the new complex, visitors begin their visit in the Ford Orientation Center, take advantage of the mansion and its farms and outbuildings on the 500-acre estate and leave through the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. But the new buildings are worthy of a visit on their own.

A New Welcome
Like a servant would have greeted guests into Washington's mansion, the Ford Orientation Center, a gift of the Ford Motor Company Fund, is designed to welcome visitors to Mount Vernon. But the Center also serves to introduce visitors to Washington and his home before seeing his mansion.

Visitors purchase tickets to Mount Vernon and immediately go through the Orientation Center. Just inside the doors, a bronze statue shows George, Martha, and two of his step grandchildren walking toward the entrance as if they can't wait to meet you.

You can't miss Mount Vernon in Miniature, outside of the theater. This exact replica of Mount Vernon is miniature in name only. At one-twelfth the size of Mount Vernon, it is ten feet long, more than eight feet high, and approximately six feet wide. Look carefully as drawers open, doorknobs turn, windows open, fireplaces glow, and more.

Pick up a map and a brochure (available in 11 languages) before seeing a movie about George Washington that plays in two adjacent theaters. In under 20 minutes, the film primarily focuses on George Washington's life as a warrior in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, but it also shows him meeting Martha and returning home to Mount Vernon.

From the Orientation Center, a walkway extends to the historic North Lane where visitors can proceed to the Bowling Green, the expanse of lawn that leads to the Mansion and the outbuildings, including a kitchen, stables, greenhouse, and slave quarters. In the mansion and throughout the estate, historic interpreters answer questions.

As visitors leave, they go through the Reynolds Museum and Education Center, named after the late media entrepreneur and philanthropist whose foundation donated $24 million for this venture. In the lobby of Reynolds building, the entrances to both the Museum and Education Center are clearly marked. Both are organized into galleries and illuminate the life of Washington. On the left, the Education Center's hands-on activities and videos, provides a more modern experience that is geared more to families.

On the right, the Museum's thematic galleries offer a more traditional, contemplative museum experience.

The Education Center
What did Washington look like as a young man? With no existing portraits of Washington before the age of 40, Mount Vernon convened a team of experts who used imaging, documents, clothing, and likenesses of Washington to create life size models of him as a 19-year-old surveyor, a 45-year-old general and a 57-year-old president that are displayed in three of the sixteen galleries of the Education Center. Most of the galleries follow a chronological view of Washington's life from his childhood to his final hours.

In the Young Virginian Gallery, Washington the surveyor is in a forest with a cardinal that tweets, an owl that hoots, and a squirrel with a swishing tail. Kids will also enjoy an animated cartoon of Washington and scenes from his early life, including the burning of his childhood home, is projected on the wall. But it's the adults who will appreciate the irony of the objects in the Gentleman Planter Gallery. Here, a replica of the Washington family pew box is next to a shot glass placed in front of an infinity mirror to show the countless rounds of alcohol that Washington bought for voters at the polls when he was running for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses.

In the People's President Gallery a 57-year-old Washington is sworn into office at Federal Hall in New York. Following prompts, you can place your hand on a replica Bible, recite the oath of office and you'll hear a cheering crowd. Yet beyond the politician and president, the Education Center also entertains with films and exhibits to visitors to Washington as a soldier, a husband, an entrepreneur, a slave owner, and, due to popular demand and to dispel the wooden teeth myth--a man whose teeth hurt. In a film about the Revolutionary War and Washington, viewers experience the action. When the cannons fire, the seats rumble, and when the troops cross the icy Delaware River, simulated snow falls in the theater and evaporates before landing. A map on an oval screen below the main screen puts the war in context as it displays a map of battle locations during the war.

Visitors can view Washington as a romantic in a film, narrated by Tony Award-winning actress Glenn Close, on Washington's 40-year relationship with Martha Washington, who was a widow with two young children when they met. The Visionary Entrepreneur Gallery depicts the business side of Washington as a farmer and the owner of a mill a fishery. The Dilemma of Slavery provides a forum for descendents of slaves who worked at Mount Vernon and scholars to share their view in a video on how Washington dealt with one of the most difficult issues of his day.

In the Leader's Smile Gallery, Washington's dental woes are on view. A timeline of Washington's dental woes stretch from the loss of his first two teeth when he served in the French and Indian War to his last set of dentures in 1798, the year before his death. The last film in the Education Center features quotes from prominent Americans about Washington alternating with well-known American symbols and touchstones.

At the Museum
In the first of six galleries to the Museum, Mount Vernon's most prized artifact, a terracotta bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, is mounted in a circular doomed glass enclosure. It's hardly the image that Americans have of Washington, but apparently to make the mask that influenced the bust, Washington rested on a table in his dining room with straws in his nostrils.

The remaining galleries contain personal effects of the Washington family, such as decorative arts, textiles, china, silver, books and manuscripts, including Washington's Last Will and Testament. Among the larger pieces is the original weathervane from the copula of Mount Vernon of a dove with an olive branch in its beak, and a globe, which is missing Antarctica (it hadn't been discovered yet). Many of the objects, such as the census of his slaves, give us a better picture of Washington as wealthy man of his era. But others, including a letter expressing concern that his step grandson isn't studying enough, reveal timeless concerns.

"We're unabashedly pro George Washington," says Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. "By the end of their visit, we want visitors to know Washington." In other words, they want his image to be as crisp as a new dollar bill.

Mount Vernon (703-780-2000 / http://www.mountvernon.org) is located in northern Virginia, 16 miles from Washington DC. The estate is open March and September to October, daily 9 AM-5 PM; April to August, daily 8 AM-5 PM; November to February, daily 9 AM-4 PM. Admission: $13 ages 12 and up, $12 seniors 62 and older; $6 children 6-11, free for children under 5. Passes for the distillery and gristmill: $4 adults, children $2. Year round passes available for $18 per person; add a youth for $9 each.

How well do you know George Washington?
First in War, Peace and Whiskey?

George Washington is an all-American hero revered for his honesty, bravery and courage as commander in chief of the Continental Army and as president. Many also people know that he was a wealthy landowner, a farmer and a stepfather. But a booze maker? Yes, it turns out our Founding Father was in the business of making and selling whiskey. In 1797, after serving two terms as president, Washington retired to Mount Vernon. His plantation manager James Anderson, a Scotsman, approached the president about building and running a distillery on the property. Washington already knew the benefits of booze in politics. He bought alcohol for voters at the polls when he was running for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. But the business of booze was different. Still, Washington gave it a shot and made barrels of money.

The Distillery Washington built on his property was rebuilt based on historical records and opened to the public in April 2007. Located three miles form the mansion, the Distillery's gift shop will start selling limited quantities of Washington's whiskey this fall. Incidentally, there's no word on whether Washington drank his own whiskey, but you can also purchase Madeira wine, which he did drink.

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