George Washington, We Hardly Knew Ye; Mount Vernon Introduces 3-Dimensional Man

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 5, 2006 | Go to article overview

George Washington, We Hardly Knew Ye; Mount Vernon Introduces 3-Dimensional Man


Byline: Kathryn McKay, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

How much do you know about George Washington?

The educators and staff at Washington's home, Mount Vernon, are 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, director of teacher and student programs at 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."

Mount Vernon's response? A new $100- million, 66,700-square-foot complex opening Oct. 27 on the grounds of the first president's estate that will allow visitors to see more than his home. At the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, they'll also meet the man who was a surveyor, a husband, a soldier, an entrepreneur, a stepfather, and more.

Founding Father remembered

Perhaps it's just in time. National surveys back up Ms. Hayward's concerns that Americans may be forgetting the Father of Our Country.

In a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll in 2005, when Americans ranked our greatest presidents, George Washington came in sixth. In a poll conducted and released by Washington College in Chestertown, Md., he was seventh behind Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

In the Washington College poll, less than half of Americans knew that Washington led the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Adults under 29 know even less, according to the poll. Only 57 percent 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, or name his home.

To help rectify the situation, Mount Vernon needed to do something different. It needed more than the mansion and slave quarters, stable, kitchen and other outbuildings at Mount Vernon, which basically depict life in the last year of Washington's life, 1799.

Mount Vernon needed to go backward, to a time when Washington was young, to make up for the limited knowledge that Americans have of our Founding Father. And that's what it's doing with the new complex, which it hopes will let visitors see more than the white-haired, solemn-faced guy on the dollar bill.

A subtle change

The opening of the two centers will be something of a gala event. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David McCullough, author of the best selling "1776," will speak at the ceremony. Musicians will play bagpipes and, in a tribute to music of the 18th century, fifers and drummers will play.

Don't expect to see grand new buildings on the estate. Most of the complex is tucked under a four-acre pasture where traditional Hogg Island sheep graze, 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. The new buildings were designed to preserve the views and not detract from the mansion.

Visitors will begin their sojourn in the Ford Center, take advantage of the mansion and its farms and outbuildings on the 500-acre estate and leave through the Reynolds Center. But the new buildings are worthy of a visit on their own.

A new orientation

Like a servant would have greeted guests into Washington's mansion, the Ford Orientation Center a gift of the Ford Motor Company Fund, which has been supporting Mount Vernon for 80 years is designed to welcome visitors to the historic site. But it also serves to introduce visitors to Washington and his home before they see his mansion.

Visitors purchase their 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 stepgrandchildren, Nelly and Washy Custis, walking toward the entrance as if they can't wait to meet you. …

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