- The Washington Times - Monday, May 23, 2005

A visitors complex is being constructed at Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens, George Washington’s historic home, in an effort to attract tourists and reintroduce the public to the nation’s first president.

The new buildings, much of which will be underground, will cover 4 acres near the main entrance to the estate in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County. They will feature a welcome center, a museum and an interactive education center about Washington’s life, his military and political careers, and his accomplishments.

“Mount Vernon is the most-visited historic home in America, and we want to entice even more visitors,” said Gay H. Gaines, regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. “But the most important thing is to have the visitors understand that without this man, our country wouldn’t exist.”

The new buildings are part of an $85 million “To Keep Him First” program to reintroduce Washington to the American public.

The complex will include several theaters that will show short films about Washington’s life and his participation in several major battles.

The education center will tell the story of Washington, exploring various aspects of his life and his contributions to the United States. The museum will house more than 170 personal artifacts from Washington’s life, including his famous dentures, sunglasses, a dress sword, firearms and a Revolutionary War traveling trunk.

One of the highlights of the museum will be an authentic crime-scene investigation laboratory with the latest forensic techniques that will transform Washington graphically from an older adult into a frontiersman.

The center also will serve as Washington’s only presidential library, offering online access to all of Washington’s papers and 40,000 letters via the Web site, www.mountvernon.org.

The estate overlooking the Potomac River was Washington’s home until his death in 1799.

The center is scheduled to open in fall 2006. Construction will cost $50 million and is funded through donations.

Like other museums and institutions nationwide, Mount Vernon has experienced low attendance in recent years. Officials said the drop can be blamed primarily on the events of September 11, 2001, which discouraged tourists and school groups from visiting the D.C. area.

Visitorship at the estate dropped from more than 1 million in 2001 to about 791,000 in 2003. Last year, about 920,000 people visited the estate, officials said.

Declining attendance also can be blamed on a general American disinterest in Washington and the 18th century, officials said.

“We’re not going to lose our focus on George Washington simply because he’s a dead, white male,” said Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon.

“All you have to do to prove it is tell the real story. George Washington risked his life on the battlefield again and again; he was an incredible adventurer,” Mr. Rees said. “If people think George Washington is a boring dead white male, they don’t know the real George Washington. We want to show people the real George Washington.”

Mount Vernon is one of several historic sites in the region to undertake program and facility updates in an effort to increase tourism.

A Colonial Williamsburg program will include more interaction between visitors and its period actors. Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Charlottesville, is building a new visitors center.

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