- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

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.

You can’t miss “Mount Vernon in Miniature,” just outside the theater. This exact replica of Mount Vernon is miniature in name only. At one-twelfth the size of Mount Vernon, it is 10 feet long, more than 8 feet high, and approximately 6 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 and the Revolutionary wars, 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, stable, greenhouse and slave quarters. In the mansion and throughout the estate, historic interpreters answer questions.

Education comes first

Visitors who have gone through the mansion then make their way to the Reynolds complex, named for the late media entrepreneur and philanthropist whose foundation gave Mount Vernon $24 million for this venture — and whose name also graces the new Center for American Art and Portraiture (the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery) downtown. Robert H. and Clarice Smith of Arlington also made a significant contribution to the center.

The museum and the Education Center form two distinct sections. In the lobby, the entrances to each 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 provide 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.

Try the Education Center first. Pride of place here goes to three newly unveiled models of Washington that help to answer the question of what he looked 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. The process of making these models is the subject of the first gallery. These life-size models are displayed in three of the 16 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. Children will also enjoy an animated cartoon of Washington, and scenes from his early life, including the burning of his childhood home, are 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 (yes, you can enter it) from Pohick Church 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 and recite the oath of office; you’ll hear a cheering crowd.

Soldier, husband, denture wearer

Yet beyond the politician and president, the Education Center also entertains with films and exhibits of Washington as a soldier, a husband, an entrepreneur and a slave owner.

And, thanks to visitors’ repeated questions and to dispel the myth that Washington wore wooden dentures, an entire gallery is given over to the first president as a man whose teeth hurt.

In a film about the Revolutionary War and Washington, made by the same company that developed the successful Imax movie “I Fly,” 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 but 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 and a fishery. The Dilemma of Slavery provides a forum for descendants 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.

“How the whole myth about Washington’s wooden teeth got started, we don’t know,” says Emily Coleman Dibella of Mount Vernon.

Laser scans performed last year on one set of Washington’s false teeth at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, a Smithsonian affiliate, showed that the first president’s dentures were made of gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, human teeth and the teeth of animals.

By giving a timeline of Washington’s dental woes 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, Ms. Dibella says, “People can understand that he was in chronic pain, yet he accomplished so much.”

The last film in the Education Center features quotations 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 terra-cotta bust of Washington by Jean-Antoine Houdon, is mounted in a circular domed glass enclosure.

“We believe the bust was influenced by a mask made in the large dining room when George Washington was 53,” says Ms. Dibella.

It’s hardly the image that Americans have of Washington but, apparently, to make the mask Washington rested on a table 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 weather vane from the cupola of Mount Vernon — a dove with an olive branch in its beak — and a globe, which is missing Antarctica, which hadn’t been discovered yet.

Many of the objects, such as the census of his slaves, give us a better picture of Washington as a wealthy man of his era. But others, including a letter expressing concern that his stepgrandson isn’t studying enough, reveal timeless concerns.

In addition to the galleries and films in the Museum and Education Center, there will be a Hands-on History room for preschoolers with replicas of period clothing that youngsters can don for dress-up, farm animals, and more.

For scholars and students, a presidential library will provide access to more than 20,000 letters by Washington.

“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.

WHAT: Mount Vernon

WHERE: Southern end of the George Washington Memorial Parkway

WHEN: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily March and September-October, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily April to August, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. daily November to February

ADMISSION: $6-$13, free for children under 5. Year-round passes $18 per person; add a youth for $9 each. Free admission on Oct. 27

REFRESHMENTS: A food court and the Mount Vernon Inn, where costumed staff serve Colonial and modern fare, are outside the main gate.

INFORMATION: 703/780-2000, www.mountvernon.org

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