Countrymen, get reacquainted

Special to The Times

THE private organization that runs Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, will soon open an opulent and dramatic visitors complex that will try to fill a need spawned by the growing ignorance of Americans about their own history.

There was a time when most visitors came to the 18th century estate and lovely grounds in northern Virginia already full of facts and insights into the life and times of the first president of the United States. But this is no longer so -- a lack of knowledge that first attracted notice in the 1990s.

“We realized then that the people coming through our gates,” says James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, “were different than they were 30 or 40 years earlier. They didn’t know very much about George Washington.”


Of course, they still flocked to Mount Vernon, little more than 10 miles from Washington, D.C., because they knew Washington was the first president and had commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But they knew little else.

In a survey in the 1990s, for example, seniors at 50 leading American colleges and universities were asked to name the victorious American general at the battle of Yorktown. Rees says only 34% correctly named Washington; 37% came up with Ulysses S. Grant.

Rees said he and his staff studied high school textbooks of the 1990s and found they contained about one-tenth as much information about Washington as textbooks had 30 or 40 years earlier.

So a decision was made to launch a $100- million campaign to build an orientation and educational center for the million visitors who come to Mount Vernon every year. No historical residence in the United States receives more visitors, not even Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or Elvis Presley’s Graceland. Rees hoped that the new center might even serve as Washington’s presidential library, like the John F. Kennedy library in Boston.

The result, which will open to the public Friday, is less presidential library than a striking melange of history, art, civics, forensic anthropology, computer science, educational television, Hollywood, Madame Tussauds, and a little bit of hokum -- such as ersatz snow falling on an audience as it watches a film about the revolutionary soldiers crossing the Delaware River in winter.

Washington’s home is owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1853 that guards its independence so fiercely that it accepts no federal, state or local government funding. The largest donors for the new facilities were the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, named for the media entrepreneur, and their gifts are recognized in the names of the two new buildings -- the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.


To keep the new buildings from jarring the antique tranquillity of Washington’s home and grounds, the designer, GWWO architects of Baltimore, has placed 65% of the complex’s 66,700 square feet below ground.

In the past, after purchasing tickets ($6 to $13), visitors would head straight for the Washington home and wait their turn to enter. Now they will first enter the orientation center, which has two movie theaters with a total of 450 seats. The theaters will screen an 18-minute film, produced by Greystone Films of North Hollywood, that will mainly depict Washington as a warrior in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Directed by Dutch-born Kees Van Oostrum, who has worked extensively in American television for 20 years, the movie stars the French-born and French-trained actor Sebastian Roche as George Washington.

A tour of the grand house will follow the orientation. The mansion was inherited by Washington in 1761 and expanded over the years, most notably by a two-story piazza or porch in front and a cupola on top. Except for his years as commander of the revolutionary army and as president, he lived in Mount Vernon until his death in 1799. Using slave labor, he oversaw an 8,000-acre plantation from the house. When he died, 316 slaves lived on the Mount Vernon estate. His will provided freedom for 124, but the rest belonged legally to his widow.

Mount Vernon has little of the inventiveness, architectural flair and French fashion that mark a famous rival -- Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, in central Virginia. Instead, Mount Vernon is stately, sturdy, rich and proper. But it is infused with authenticity. It looks exactly like it must have looked at the time of Washington’s death. Visitors cannot help sensing that Washington walked and worked and slept in these very rooms. The experience can be affecting, no matter how little the visitor knows about the life of Washington.


Face to face with a likeness

AFTER a tour of the home, visitors will descend into the Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The museum is small, comprising seven galleries, mainly filled with pieces of decorative art. Its most-prized feature is a clay bust of Washington by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. After the end of the Revolutionary War, the Virginia legislature decided to honor Washington with a marble statue. Both Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin recommended Houdon, who regarded the commission as the most important of his career. Houdon and three assistants spent almost three weeks at Mount Vernon in 1785 when Washington was 53. Houdon placed Washington under a sheet on a long table to make a life mask in plaster. He also modeled a bust of the future president in clay and took measurements of his girth and height.

Houdon presented the clay bust to Washington as a gift. The sculptor and his crew then returned to Paris with the life mask and a plaster mold of the bust. Using these to guide him, the sculptor fulfilled his commission by sending a full-length marble statue to Virginia, where it now stands in the Capitol building in Richmond. Houdon also chiseled several marble busts of Washington, including one now owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


The Reynolds museum is a byway on the path to the main attraction of the new complex -- the educational center. This center, which dwarfs the museum, has 13 galleries and three theaters. It is a kind of educational extravaganza, aimed not at scholars but at young people curious about Washington. The center is replete with History Channel videos and touch-screen computers exploring Washington’s life and exhibits that draw onlookers into action. A visitor, for example, can place a hand on a reproduction of the Bible once used by Washington and, prompted by a recording, repeat the oath of office that the first president took in 1789 in New York.

Washington’s false teeth are displayed in a gallery of their own called “A Leader’s Smile.” A timeline across a wall of the gallery and a video explain that Washington’s bad teeth and dentures kept him in pain for much of his life.

A trick mirror in another gallery shows Washington with a crown on his head, signifying the campaign by some Americans to make the Revolutionary commander a king after the war. To reflect Washington’s refusal, the image of Washington as king vanishes in the mirror, its place taken by another image of Washington as citizen. One gallery displays large drawings by modern editorial cartoonists satirizing the issues of Washington’s presidency.

The most novel feature of the displays are three life-size wax figures depicting Washington at ages 19, 45 and 57. Rees says the idea for the figures came to him while he was watching a television program about the Shroud of Turin, the controversial piece of ancient linen that millions of Christians believe covered Christ after his death. There was a discussion on the program about constructing a likeness of Christ based on what appear to be the impressions of a man’s features still on the shroud. “If that little evidence could give us an inkling of what Christ looked like,” Rees says he told himself, “we have a lot more than that here.”

Analyzing the Houdon bust, various portraits, descriptions in letters, his clothing and his dentures, a trio of specialists -- forensic anthropologist Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, computer scientist Anshuman Razdan of Arizona State University and sculptor Ivan Schwartz -- created the wax figures of Washington at three ages. The figures are placed in tableaux showing Washington as a young surveyor in Virginia, as commander of the revolutionary army, and as president taking his oath of office.

The displays in the education center are so spectacular that they raise the question of whether they will leave more of an impression on visitors than the Mount Vernon home itself.


But Rees is confident that will not happen. “I’ve been here 23 years,” he says. “Nothing seems to make people not make the house their top priority. I’m not concerned about this.”