RICHMOND —New displays and investments increased the number of visitors last year at some of Virginia’s most famous historical sites, museum officials say.
Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, had more than 1 million visitors for the first time since 2001, spokeswoman Melissa Wood said. A $110 million visitors complex that portrays George Washington as an action hero helped attract 1.08 million visitors, compared with 948,821 in 2006.
Mount Vernon even rebuilt the distillery where Washington developed a lucrative sideline by producing rye whisky.
“We’re trying to get away from that old man on the dollar bill,” Miss Wood said, referring to the most common image of the country’s first president.
Miles down the Potomac River, in Westmoreland County, officials at the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee took a similar approach.
They are touting Stratford Hall’s 1,900 acres as a place to get in touch with nature and celebrate the region’s rural roots.
Officials coordinated tours commemorating the 200th anniversary of Lee’s birth and held the two-day Northern Neck food-and-harvest festival, which was attended by more than 1,600 people and helped break years of stagnant visitation.
There was a 9 percent increase last year in guided tours through the mansion, compared with 2006. About 35,000 people visited.
“We’re doing a lot more family-friendly stuff,” said director Paul C. Reber.
At Montpelier, the home of James Madison, the country’s fourth president, officials are depending on a $23 million restoration to win over tourists.
Officials at the Orange County historical site are painstakingly removing 20th-century alterations to the house and returning it to the way Madison left it.
“It’s proving to be a place to rediscover the father of the Constitution,” spokeswoman Peggy Vaughn said. She also said officials think interest in the restoration helped catalyze a 25 percent increase in visitation last year, which was 44,802 in 2006.
The increased visitor numbers come as tourists look for a more interactive experience, said Tamar Talmadge-Anderson, director of public relations for the state-supported Virginia Tourism Corp.
“People don’t want to be looking at things behind velvet ropes,” she said. “What we’ve seen is travelers craving a more authentic experience, a more hands-on experience. They are looking to be engaged.”
The company does not track total visitation from year to year at all 700 museums in the state — though last year’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary at Jamestown is credited with drawing attention to all Virginia attractions.
Still, some sites have languished.
Monticello, third President Thomas Jefferson’s inventive hilltop home in Albemarle County, had 441,739 visitors last year — 8,619 fewer than in 2006.
Wayne Mogielnicki, a spokesman, said last year’s drought, which kept fall foliage subdued, didn’t help during the usually busy season.
Officials plan to open a new visitor center in 2009.
“This year we’re hoping to hold the line,” he said.