How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes

Autumn 2014

How Private Philanthropy Saved the Founders’ Homes
Mount Vernon and Monticello nearly vanished.

Every day for the last 200 years, boats gliding along the wide Potomac have blown their horns or clanged their bells as they pass Mount Vernon, in festive tribute to the estate’s revered creator, George Washington. The tradition began, legend has it, when Admiral George Cockburn, sailing back from torching the city of Washington in the War of 1812, tolled his flagship’s bell as he passed Mount Vernon in 1814, though whether as a chivalrous salute to the memory of an officer of world-historical genius or as a sarcastic taunt after burning the city that bore the great general’s name legend doesn’t say.

What is certain is that one such foghorn blast on an autumn night in 1853 startled a South Carolina lady returning home by steamer from Philadelphia, and she came up on deck to see what the commotion was about. In the bright moonlight, she saw the cause all too plainly: Mount Vernon—but a Mount Vernon moldering into ruin, its veranda sagging, its untended lawns waist-high. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington,” Louisa Cunningham wrote to her daughter. “It does seem such a blot on our country!”

That letter set in motion an extraordinary drama of historical preservation that will seem almost incredible to the 1.1 million visitors each year who see today’s superb Mount Vernon, sparkling with reverent care and bustling not just with tourism but with world-class scholarship. And the same is true of the 440,000 annual visitors to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, also designed, like Mount Vernon, by an amateur-architect Founding Father and embodying in concrete form its builder’s deepest longings and ideals. (See “Monticello’s Shadows,” Autumn 2007.) The home of the author of the Declaration of Independence—perhaps America’s most beautiful house—was once similarly falling into ruin, before being saved in the most unexpected, almost operatic, way and transformed, like Mount Vernon, into one of the nation’s premier private philanthropies.
mount vernon in ruins
It’s sagging porch propped up by poles, Mount Vernon was moldering into ruin before an all-women charity restored its original luster.COURTESY OF THE MOUNT VERNON LADIES’ ASSOCIATION Continue reading