- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 16, 2003

If not for seven women and their public appeal for help 150 years ago, George Washington's magnificent estate might today be an open field or a housing development. Instead, it's one of the nation's most popular historic sites, drawing 80 million visitors since opening to the public in 1860.
The story of how they saved Mount Vernon and how it remains in pristine condition highlights an exhibit that opened yesterday at the National Building Museum, "Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America."
Washington was devoted to the house and the grounds, which he inherited in 1761. While he was leading American forces in the Revolutionary War, he kept track of renovations by mail.
After the war, Washington and his wife, Martha, entertained so many guests that he likened the house to a well-patronized tavern. When he died in 1799, Mount Vernon was a self-contained community with hundreds of residents, five farms and 8,000 acres, four times the size of what he inherited.
The estate, along the banks of the Potomac River in Virginia, fell into disrepair after Washington's death. In 1853, seven women appealed for help in a Charleston, S.C., newspaper. Seven years later, they had raised $200,000 about $7.5 million in today's money to buy the property from Washington's great-grandnephew, John A. Washington.
The seven formed the core of what became the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which still owns the mansion and 500 acres around it. The association inherited Washington's plan of the property and carefully preserved the outbuildings, including the slave quarters.
Mount Vernon opened to the public in 1860 and remained open throughout the Civil War. The estate was declared neutral ground, and both Union and Confederate troops found relief there.
Current work includes restoring a round threshing floor, where horses ran in a circle to trample grain.
The distillery that made Washington the biggest whiskey producer in the country, 11,000 gallons a year, may be rebuilt.
The association collects as much material as it can to increase the site's authenticity. It influenced other preservation projects by taking pains to cut through many layers of paint and find the colors that the Washingtons favored. As a result, the walls of salons and dining rooms are a dark blue-green called verdigris, replacing the pastel blues and pinks that earlier restorers thought right.
Close attention to original plans has brought removal of the balustrade, which was built after Washington's time above the much-admired piazza overlooking the Potomac.
Mount Vernon is eager to buy objects that were in the house, or could have been, when the Washingtons lived there. It has the compass he used when he was a young surveyor and what is believed to be Martha's sewing table.
The exhibit closes Sept. 21.

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