George Washington, Architect
George Washington is not a well-known architect, he is better known as president, general, farmer, and yet his architecture is more influential than that of Le Corbusier and F.L. Wright. Yes, you should laugh, because true. In fact, Washington’s Mount Vernon style will survive long after the mod fashions of Corbusier and Wright because Mount Vernon is more American, better suited to American conditions, tastes, and sympathies.
Mount Vernon, originally named “Little Hunting Creek”, was a modest farm with a one and a half story house. This small house had four rooms, little art in design and few furnishings. It was, as architects say, “sincere”, meaning untutored and awkward. When through a series of events George Washington inherited his father’s (Augustine Washington) 1734 house, the property had been renamed “Mount Vernon” in honor of Admiral Vernon who captured for us, well, for England, Guantanamo Bay. “Mount” refers to the home’s prospect above the wide, slow Potomac River.
The original Mount Vernon can yet be perceived by the asymmetrical entrance of the west land-front, despite Washington’s attempt to lend visual order to the façade’s disordered asymmetry. Washington’s 1774 architectural elevation shows both the original house (beneath the central gable) and the Classive additions (1750s and 1774–1778) that cradle the original. The original disorder was caused by an awkward, ill-considered front stair alignment, a type of ill consideration common to untrained designers and graduates of modern architecture schools. Washington, a man of discernment, recognized the design problem and solved it as a frugal, responsible man would, in honesty respecting his heritage and developing a style from better, more beautiful models.
The old, small house is classed “Georgian” for the kings George. The new, presidential house might be distinguished “Georgian” for frugal, refined, honest George Washington. The term “Colonial” is unsuitable because George Washington was not a colonial, he was a native American, inheritor of the land developed by his colonial ancestors. Perhaps the most appropriate name for the Mount Vernon style is “Washingtonian”. Yes, there are elements of Palladio and Langley, though these are not slavishly copied. Washington was a man at liberty in will and in design, gifted with endowments both uncommon and superior. Many have attempted to discredit Washington with accusations of copying, though no precedent in bookplate or in archeological material has been found. The exterior of Mount Vernon is a new thing in architecture, much in the way that our nation was a new thing in politics.
Look closely at Washington’s architectural adaptations. Notice the layers of stone-approximation that grant the façade substantial weight, an effect accomplished by integrating sand with paint, an economical fashion of sandstone without the expense. Notice that the house is similar to your body, that it has three parts, that its parts have three parts, as you have a bottom, middle, top / right-side, center, left-side / front, center, back. Notice that these architectural parts, though communicated on paper, are designed with physical presence, and this presence is the cause of your comfortable familiarity when seeing or when visiting the house. And too, Mount Vernon is scaled, friendly to your size, accommodating to your pace.
Yes, of course, George Washington gleaned from precedent the elliptical window, the cupola, the curved, open arcaded hyphens, and other details, making each considered detail personal. Note the charming, Washington-original weathervane. Washington, the architect, dictated particulars of the weathervane’s unique design in a note to a Philadelphia fabricator, “should like to have a bird…with an olive branch in its Mouth. The bird need not be large (for I do not expect that it will traverse with the wind and therefore may receive the real shape of a bird, with spread wings).” This “bird of peace” fabrication-order was made when Washington was presiding over our Constitutional Convention, 1787.
The east waterfront entrance of Mount Vernon is most original, and I think without precedent. I have searched Palladio, the pattern books, the Roman, the Renaissance, the European, and after searching it seems to me that Washington adapted his unique veranda to Tidewater conditions. Mount Vernon, like other Georgian, colonial houses, became American Tidewater by experience, growing its porch from its body’s bones as did other Tidewater cottages, but here at Mount Vernon the Tidewater is made grand, made presidential, alike the man.
Washington, like Jefferson was untrained in architecture. In fact, in 18th Century America there were few trained architects–thankfully. Then too, Washington and Jefferson were untrained as presidents. In fact, before Washington the world had not known a national president. Washington and Jefferson (Adams and Madison) created a nation from what was at hand, the Greek, the Roman, the European precedents, and with unique intelligence each applied lessons to traditions inventing a new form of nation and leadership, the presidency. Just so, Washington and Jefferson from Classive tradition created excellent architectural styles, the Jeffersonian and the Washingtonian.
Through all your life you’ve known the Washingtonian architectural style (the two-story, giant Tuscan Order, the Tidewater veranda, the arcaded hyphens, the crowning, presidential cupola surmounted by peace … the bringing forth dignity and order from chaos and simplicity). In fact, the Washingtonian is likely the first architectural style that you identified, but when you were at school, the mods had already corrupted education, distorted history and truth. Perhaps it is time to recall a George Washington formed by Classive education, the best models of beauty, goodness, truth. Perhaps it is time again to honor Washington the visionary, the connoisseur, the practical builder who shaped our political and physical landscape. Perhaps it is time to recognize that virtue more than specialty engenders excellence … as in Mount Vernon, incarnation of the nation and the man.
Much like you, George Washington loved his home, made improvements, fussed over details, curated his collection, labored in his garden, was meticulous in every personal, family, and corporate consideration. Perhaps like you, George Washington aspired to the best in all things civil and civilizing, drawing to himself those objects which had the approbation of thousands of years, in this way employing the good judgement of others to improve his own. This is the way of Classive civilization, discernment, prudence, the choice in all things of virtue over vice, the suspicion of novelty because though surprising, novelty is most often corrupting.
Here I must admit that Washington’s dining room window is derived from Langley’s Treasury of Designs, Plate 51, “Venetian Windows of the Tuscan Order.” And here Washington did as I and most every architect has done, allowed some borrowing for expediency or in respect. Yet again, Washington’s Mount Vernon veranda is without precedent, and this the cause of its fame, of the thousands and thousands of imitators. Yes, of course, Washington was and yet is first among us, but that alone is not cause of the fame of his house or of his Mount Vernon design which is found in most every city of most every state of our union. Tell me: how many Buckingham Palace designs are found in England, how many Versailles designs are found in France.
Washington’s architectural style is more common in this nation than any other singular architectural style or precedent, excepting perhaps some original, unknown Cape Cod and the Greek Doric Parthenon (Ranches and the rest haven’t a singular source). Washington’s Tidewater veranda, like Washington’s Classive cupola and the open arched hyphens, answered the local climate and his specific design requirements. When you are on the road, when in travel through our nation you might now notice Washington’s Mount Vernon veranda style, remember the man, and credit Washington, the architect.
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Below, a portfolio of examples. Now, I much regret not photographing a particularly homey, beautiful Mount Vernon, a modest house replaced by two Artsy-Craftsy McMansions near my Belle Haven home. And I should have photographed all those many Mount Vernons, some made Italianate when Italianate was in fashion, some stripped of the veranda by heartless, historyless, eager flippers, some made ugly mod by glomming-on progressive doodads or by destroying symmetry to shock good neighbors. Much I should have done. Perhaps someone will someday record the new Mount Vernons, the old Mount Vernons, the lost Mount Vernons, and these with an appreciation of the nation, of our history, and of the man George Washington, architect.
George Washington Architect, Mount Vernon Portfolio
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Featured image: George Washington Architect, Mount Vernon, credit Bob Poole
GEORGE WASHINGTON ARCHITECT
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