Saving Mount Vernon

In 1854, the place where the Father of Our Country played father to his family was a run-down, dilapidated shambles.  Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, which was so beloved to him that he kept giving up power to return to it, had a collapsed roof and rotted front portico. Most of the windows were broken, the inside staircases were destroyed, the furniture was in disrepair, and it needed a coat of paint. Someone wrote that a strong wind would likely blow the entire edifice down.

It was, in short, a national disgrace, as Louisa Cunningham discovered when she viewed Mount Vernon from the deck of a boat that passed by it on the Potomac River. Shocked by its ruinous state, she wrote her daughter Ann that something must be done.  Ann Cunningham decided to do something.

She created the Mount Vernon Ladies Association with the aim of publicizing Mount Vernon’s tragic condition in order to raise enough money to buy it from its current owner, John Washington (a great grandnephew of Washington), and restore it.  To this end, she and the other association members wrote letters to newspapers, held fundraisers, gave speeches and even lobbied politicians both in Congress and in the Virginia legislature

At first progress was slow, both in terms of raising funds and negotiating with John Washington, who refused to even consider selling the home to a group of ladies.  Fortunately, Cunningham’s cause came to the attention of the age’s most famous orator, Edward Everett (whose much admired address would precede Lincoln’s at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863), who volunteered not only to make Washington’s home the subject of future orations and newspaper articles but also to donate his fees to the association’s fundraising efforts.

With their financial picture brightened, the ladies turned to negotiating with John Washington, whose refusal to sell the famous, but endangered home had generated widespread condemnation from the many newspapers that increasingly were taking up the ladies’ cause. This only hardened Washington’s position, but at a meeting between Cunningham and Washington, Cunningham — rather than condemning him as well — expressed condolences for the criticism he was receiving.  That set in motion a change of heart and finally Washington agreed to sell Mount Vernon to the Mount Vernon Ladies Association for $200,000.  The sale was consummated this week (April 6) in 1858, and by 1860 Mount Vernon was on its way to becoming what it is today — a majestic, much visited memorial to America’s greatest leader.

As for Ann Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, they are honored today as the pioneers of America’s historic preservation movement, whose national association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, once employed me — albeit briefly — as a writer.