In his work “The Sketch Book,” Washington Irving wrote, "History fades into fable."
That is exactly what the Mount Vernon Ladies Association is determined to prevent with the establishment of an $85 million capital campaign to establish a living museum and educational/orientation complex at the estate of America's first president.
At a tented dinner and gala reception Saturday night at Mount Vernon, a $15 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas was officially unveiled to a gathering of 250 donors. It is the largest single grant ever made to the Estate.
"We have to come back to the basics in American history. This campaign and building project is designed to teach American history and about the real George Washington, not just the elder statesman on the dollar bill."
That was how Richard B. Dressner, Ph.D., associate director of development at the Mount Vernon Estate, reflected on the task of raising the necessary funds to accomplish this ambitious program.
It is ambitious not only in its monetary goal but also in its mission.
"We felt we needed to do this to better serve our more than one million visitors a year. Beginning in the 1980s we noticed that the knowledge of George Washington and what he stood for was dwindling. We need to tell more of the story of Washington, the man," said Mrs. James W. "Ellen" Walton, regent, Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union.
"A few years ago we enlarged our mission statement to include the life and legacy of George Washington. He really put thinking about this country ahead of himself. He refused to become king, and in fact he didn't even want to be president. He just wanted to farm at Mount Vernon," Walton explained.
"Unfortunately, teaching American history just doesn't seem important anymore. We need to find ways to expand the opportunity to teach that history and about George Washington," she insisted.
DRESSNER, A FORMER American History professor at several universities, echoed Walton's conclusion. "History has been replaced throughout the school system with social studies. We've lost the focus on American history, and one of the most important people who got us to where we are today, George Washington."
He emphasized, "We are the only nation on earth that was a state before we were a people. Those who were here and those coming here became American. There is an American culture. If people don't understand that, they don't understand American history. To really be an American, you have to understand the causes of the American Revolution.
"This campaign is designed to teach American history and about George Washington's irreplaceable role in that history. It will help people to understand American history better. We need to look at George Washington and the model he was," Dressner emphasized.
"In his time there was no separation of the public and private life. The same morals and code of conduct applied to both," Dressner stated. "With all the men of his time and all the genius assembled to establish this nation — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Franklin — they all turned to Washington," Walton added.
"Who was this man, and why did they all turn to him? Why did the drafters of the Constitution turn to Washington to preside over the Constitutional Convention?" Dressner asked rhetorically.
PROVIDING ANSWERS TO these and other questions as well as showcasing the breadth and depth of Washington, the man, will be the guiding purpose of the planned expansion facilities. They will be designed, both physically and in mission, to "look at George Washington and the model he was," according to Dressner.
Under the theme "George Washington: To Keep Him First," plans call for the construction of a state-of-the-art Orientation Center, Education Center and Museum. These new additions will total 50,000 square feet. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2004 with completion expected in 2006.
But Walton emphasized, "We are not putting a shovel in the ground until we have it fully endowed." That means reaching the goal of $85 million. At the present they are approaching $55 million.
Expenditure for each segment breaks down as follows: On-site educational facilities - $47,250,000; educational programs and outreach - $4,250,000; addition to permanent endowment - $32 million; and administrative and development expenses - $1.5 million.
The reason for Walton's insistence on full endowment is that the events of Sept. 11 brought home the fact that an economic downturn can severely impact a facility such as the Mount Vernon Estate, which is heavily dependent on tourism for its primary income and cash flow.
Even though Mount Vernon is the oldest preservation project in America, it maintains an endowment far below that of institutions of comparable size and character. Although it has grown from $4 million in 1985 to almost $45 million today, it has an annual operating and capital budget of $25 million.
Mount Vernon's endowment falls short of being an effective economic security blanket in adverse times, according to literature produced for the campaign. Like other attractions throughout the region, Mount Vernon has seen a drop in attendance since Sept. 11.
ITS TOURISM, like that of the region, is now rebounding, but many of the school groups are still coming from nearby areas such as Northern Virginia and Maryland. Most distant visitors remain adults or families, according to a recent spot check.
The $32 million endowment goal is restricted "to the support of educational outreach programs and the maintenance of the new educational facilities." The ultimate endowment goal is pegged at $100 million by 2010.
Underlying this need for shoring up the financial support is the fact that the Mount Vernon Estate is wholly owned and supported by the Association, which was founded in 1853 as a nonprofit organization. It receives no money or aid from any governmental source.
"This is ambitious, but the Mount Vernon Ladies have always been ambitious," Dressner noted. "In 1858, after the federal government refused to acquire the estate, the original group of women raised $200,000 to make the purchase and begin the restoration. That was an amazing feat at that time for that amount of money."
Thus far, 32,000 donors have contributed to the "To Keep Him First" campaign. Those who provide leadership gifts will be recognized through gallery plaques, named endowments, and a variety of publications. The names of all donors of $25,000 or more will be included on a Wall of Honor in the new facilities.
Complimenting the Donald Reynolds Foundation grant, the campaign has received grants from more than a dozen other foundations and organizations to advance the expansion plans and enhance the educational programs. Among these are a $7 million grant from the Ford Foundation and a $1 million challenge grant from the Hearst Foundation.
ALL OF THIS WILL BE used to not only increase the knowledge about George Washington, the man, but also to revitalize an interest in American History, according to Dressner. "There is the issue of dumbing down of history that needs to be reversed," he stated.
"A recent survey of college seniors at 55 of the nation's top universities reveals how deeply history is being neglected. When asked who was America's victorious general at the Battle of Yorktown, 37 percent answered ‘Grant’ and 6 percent guessed MacArthur," Dressner revealed.
"But, those results are hardly surprising," the former teacher noted. "Not one of those universities requires students to take a single course in American history to graduate. And it reaches all the way down to the elementary-school level, where another survey of fourth-graders thought Illinois, California and Texas were among the 13 original colonies."
Mount Vernon's expansion program is designed to do what it can to reverse "the dumbing down of history." Aided by Steven Spielberg, the Walt Disney Corp., interactive museum/educational and orientation centers, and an expanded teacher-teach-a-teacher program, the General is about to mount a frontal assault against the forces of historical ignorance.
It will be done both above and below ground. And, it will stretch "from sea to shining sea." Dressner noted, "We have the challenge to develop exhibits, material, and facilities to explain the exciting George Washington. We are going to do that."
<bci>How that will be accomplished and what the visitor will be able to experience will be covered in the next segment detailing the planned expansion of the Mount Vernon Estate and introducing George Washington, the man, not a fable.