Just 11 miles from Reagan National Airport, Washington’s ‘Home House’ still imparts a sense of remoteness and serenity

Mount Vernon was more than George Washington’s home; it was his project. From the time the Virginia property came into his hands in 1754, when he was a bold and desperately ambitious young major in the Virginia militia, until his death two weeks shy of a new century in 1799, by which time he was the embodiment of American grandeur and rectitude, he never stopped tinkering with the place. For much of his life, Washington was away from home on thunderously urgent business, and so he directed most of the work on Mount Vernon from a certain Olympian remove. But his correspondence is so filled with appraising references to wallpaper, nails, paint, hinges, locks, putty and glass that the man who emerges from it seems as much a frustrated handyman as the presiding figure of his age.

Even when things were at their bleakest, when his new country was falling apart before his eyes, Washington never lost interest in his fixer-upper on the Potomac River. In September 1776, in one of the first crucial engagements of the Revolutionary War, the colonial army suffered a humiliating rout on Manhattan Island, fleeing in panic from the invading British and Hessian forces as Washington rode among his troops on horseback trying futilely to beat them back into action with his riding whip.

“If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave,” he wrote to Lund Washington, the cousin who managed Mount Vernon in his absence, “I should put him in my stead with my feelings.” But in the same letter, penned in a dark hour when his cause seemed hopeless and he felt his reputation sagging into disgrace, Washington was still issuing instructions for work on his dream house. “The chimney in the new room should be exactly in the middle of it,” he instructed Lund, with a whiplash change of tone and topic, “doors and everything else to be exactly answerable and uniform—in short I would have the whole executed in a masterly manner.”

The homegrown Palladian mansion that Washington continually remodeled on his 8,000-acre estate sits on a high bluff above the Potomac. Although it is now just 11 miles downriver from D.C.’s Reagan National Airport, Washington’s “Home House” still manages to impart a formidable sense of remoteness and serenity. And if you’re fortunate enough to have the place to yourself, as I did one evening thanks to the hospitality of the Mount Vernon staff, Washington seems no more remote a presence than the fireflies on the sloping lawn or the swaying branches of the ages-old pecan tree that towers above the southern wing of the mansion.

I was sitting that night on the piazza, the commodious high-ceilinged ground-level porch that faces the river and runs from one end of the house to the other. It is a beguilingly informal and versatile space that George and Martha Washington often used as an open-air dining room. An extensive veranda like this—which has become a mainstay of North American domestic architecture—might seem to us an obvious way of taking advantage of Mount Vernon’s splendid location, but at the time the piazza was built, nothing of the sort had yet been seen in England or the New World. The supremely practical George Washington thought it up on his own.

From the piazza, I looked out over the lawn in the fading light. A gentle grassy slope led down to a sharp precipice planted with trees; my eye coasted over the leafy canopies of this “hanging wood,” past the deer park below and on out to the immemorial Potomac. The only hint of the present century was the steady electric light of a single boat and the reverberating yammer of its engine.

George Washington’s father Augustine built a compact and unassuming house here around 1735 that George’s beloved half-brother Lawrence substantially rebuilt before his death in 1752. When George subsequently became master of Mount Vernon, he raised the elevation from 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 stories and proceeded to gradually transform the house into an imposing but never intimidating mansion with multiple dining rooms and parlors, eight bedchambers, a study and a cluster of outbuildings, known as dependencies, elegantly bound to the main house by colonnaded passageways. A few of his building sketches survive, and they are plain and clear and sometimes highly inventive. “Washington was his own architect and builder,” wrote his wife’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, “laying off everything himself. The buildings, gardens and grounds all rose to ornament and usefulness under his fostering hand.”

Mount Vernon was an endless, expensive, constantly expanding project made possible only by the hundreds of slaves the Washingtons owned

Washington spent his whole adult life constructing Mount Vernon, and to a degree it is a simulacrum of his own complex and ever-evolving personality. It is, for example, a monument to privacy and containment. On the outside, there is a sense of grandeur but little ostentation apart from the rusticated sidings he copied from pattern books. Inside, however, in the dining rooms and parlors, one finds a hint of the vain inner self that it was Washington’s life’s work to tame. The walls in these rooms are painted with insistent theatrical colors—glowering Prussian blue and several eye-popping shades of verdigris green—that were the height of fashion in Washington’s day and are as vibrant as the outer walls are austere. The riotous colors serve to remind us that the grave, sober leader who publicly disdained pomp and made a show of turning away acclaim also spent a good deal of effort designing his own uniforms and obsessively plotting his worldly advancement.

Still, it is the public Washington—so even-tempered, even-handed and magisterial—who dominates Mount Vernon, just as he dominates history. During the eight years he was away fighting the Revolution, he almost never left the army, coming home only for a total of 10 days, but with an almost godlike omniscience he monitored the ongoing construction on the house.

“What are you going about next?” he wrote to Lund in 1781. “Have you any prospect of getting paint and Oyl? Are you going to repair the Pavement of the Piazza? Is anything doing, or like to be done with respect to the Wall at the edge of the Hill in front of the House? Have you made good the decayed Trees at the ends of the House, in the Hedges, &ca. Have you made any attempts to reclaim more Land for meadow? &ca. &ca.”

It was an endless, expensive, constantly expanding project, made possible only by the hundreds of slaves that Washington and his wife owned. Most of these slaves were field hands, but some were skilled carpenters and housewrights. Washington’s conscience was troubled, though not tortured, by slavery. He wished to see it disappear “by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees,” but in the meantime he needed all that free labor—all those skilled hands wielding froes and beetles and adzes and draw knives—to shape his timbers, to cut his cypress shingles, to mix his plaster and fire his bricks and to bevel and rusticate the pine planks that covered the mansion, giving the appearance of cut stone.

It was not just the mansion that was constantly being repaired and expanded but the whole plantation, with its stables, slaves’ quarters, storehouses, kitchens, coach houses and laundry yards. There was even an innovative “dung repository” for compost. One of the plantation’s most intriguing structures was a two-story treading barn. The 16-sided structure of this visionary barn approximated a circle. Inside, a horse could walk around and around the circumference of the second story, flailing wheat with its hooves. As the grain was separated from the chaff, it drifted down to the collecting floor below through gaps in the sturdy white oak planking, a process that was much more efficient than treading on open ground. The barn fell into ruin and disappeared sometime near the end of the 19th century, but an exact replica was raised in 1996.

After poking my head in the various outbuildings, I strolled through the two remarkable gardens—one for growing fruits and vegetables, one for ornamental flowers—that flank the bowling green extending from the west face of the mansion. It was an intoxicating creation, not just the plants but the beautiful terraced brick walls enclosing them. Even the ancestral privies, with their spacious summer-house feel, were part of Washington’s binding vision: the studied harmony of structure and open space that reigned over the entire Mount Vernon grounds.

“I am now I believe fixed at this seat,” Washington wrote after his marriage to Martha in 1759, “with an agreeable Consort for Life and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced amidst a wide and bustling World.”

Washington was 51 when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783, but neither the bustling world nor his own bustling nature could tolerate his living a quiet and inconsequential life as a country squire. His years of peace at Mount Vernon were chronically interrupted by bouts of war and political turmoil and by the careful tending his reputation demanded, especially after he reluctantly took the oath of office as our first president in 1789. In the end, that reputation almost totally obscured him. “Washington,” Abraham Lincoln once declaimed, “is the mightiest name on earth.”

When Washington finally managed to retreat from public life, hundreds of people stopped in at Mount Vernon annually to take advantage of his hospitality. He was a convivial yet somewhat elusive host, frequently slipping away to his bedroom and private study, or to make his rounds of the plantation. “I am not only retired from all public employments,” he wrote Lafayette, “but I am retiring within myself….I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.”

The studied harmony of structure and open space reigns over Mount Vernon

George Washington sleeps with his fathers today in a brick tomb built to his specifications on a wooded slope between the mansion and the river. In a sense, it was Mount Vernon that killed him. With a throat already raw, he had insisted upon going out on a cold and drizzly December day, eager to mark some trees for removal so that the view of the river from the piazza would be improved.

He went to bed in good spirits that night but woke in the early hours of the morning with a violent inflammation of the throat that slowly squeezed off his breath.

“I find I am going,” he said.

He was 67. Visitors are not allowed in the bedchamber he shared with Martha, and in which he died, but they can look through the door just long enough to take in the Spartan details. When I was on the tour I lingered there as long as I politely could, but when I turned my eyes to the bed on which Washington had died, I felt an unexpected spasm of emotion. It was as if after spending a day at Mount Vernon I had actually come to know the figure who had once lain there slowly suffocating.

“I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,” Washington gasped toward the end of his long last day. It was a grim and premature passage, though one would like to hope he took some comfort in the fact that he was dying in a room he himself had built, that he was passing into history within the shelter of his own creation.

“Washington’s Magnificent Obsession” appeared in the August 2008 issue of American History.