On April 30, 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, George Washington took the oath of office to become the first president of the newly constituted United States of America.
Some 213 years later, almost to the day, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union officially unveiled a massive project to keep the true legacy of Washington, the man, alive. Titled "George Washington: To Keep Him First," it will transform his Mount Vernon home from just another tourist stop to an American-history educational beacon.
"This will be an interactive learning center for students and a research center for teachers," Mrs. James W. "Ellen" Walton, regent of the Association, explained. "We need expanded facilities to tell the true and complete George Washington story."
Jim Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director, noted that "while scholars continue to acknowledge George Washington's character and leadership, many contemporary Americans, unlike previous generations, have lost touch with the real Washington. Our campaign intends to reverse that trend and restore Washington to the prominence he deserves."
To accomplish that mission, an $85 million capital campaign has been launched by the Association, which owns the Estate, to create a living museum and an educational orientation complex and to expand the total learning experience, not only about Washington but also the genesis of the American Revolution.
ALL MONEYS WILL come from private sources and foundations. The Mount Vernon Estate neither accepts nor receives any federal or state funds. At an April 27 gala reception on the grounds of the Estate, a $15 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation in Las Vegas was officially unveiled. Gifts collected so far total nearly $55 million.
Shepherding this project is Richard B. Dressner, Ph.D, associate director of development at the Mount Vernon Estate and former professor of American history at several universities. "These new facilities and experiences will enable visitors to depart with a full understanding of Washington's achievements," he noted.
"The founding fathers felt comfortable with Washington. They knew he would not try to usurp power because he had told his generals that he had no desire to be king. This very act was a symbol that this was going to be a different form of government. Up to then there had never been a president of a republic," Dressner emphasized.
"The average historic home in this country gets approximately 40,000 visitors a year. We get nearly 40,000 per week," he said. "Of the 1.1 million visitors per year, there are 350,000 school students. Their knowledge is so limited. There is so much more to teach," Dressner emphasized.
TO ACCOMPLISH that task, the goals of the campaign call for a new orientation center to introduce the personality and character of Washington, an education center to focus on his military and presidential careers, and a museum to let the artifacts tell their story of Washington, his family and his time.
"We have more than 500 pages of documents and untold artifacts with no place to display them," Walton said. "And visitors to Mount Vernon have no place to go inside except the mansion. This will enable visitors to learn while they are waiting."
The 5,000-foot, five-gallery museum will provide a location to display some 30,000 artifacts that include furniture, clothing, paintings, books, manuscripts, diaries, newspapers, weapons, tools — and even the General's original dentures. It will also have access to Washington collections shared with Mount Vernon by the Smithsonian Institution and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
"The exhibits will be changing to give visitors different perspectives. We have the challenge to develop exhibits and materials to explain the exciting, active, involved George Washington. He was so much more than the guy on the dollar bill or in the very staid portraits," Dressner said.
Located just inside the new main entrance gate, the orientation center will be screened by a grove of trees and accented by a small garden area. It's design will complement the mansion and other 18th-century buildings on the grounds.
A highlight of the center will be a large-format, 15-minute film, presented in rotation in two adjacent theaters. It will provide the visitor with a transition from the 21st to the 18th century.
"This will not be your usual documentary film," Dressner assured. "It will be fast-paced, concentrating on Washington's exploits both as a civilian and military man leading up to the revolution."
STEVEN SPIELBURG and his firm, DreamWorks SKG, have signed on as executive producers. Lorac Productions have been contracted to create the film treatment and script, according to fund-raising literature.
"It is intended to be exciting to 12-year-olds, to pique their interest in history. It will probably end with the commencement of the Revolution," Dressner said. "Our goal is to have a film of superior technical and creative qualities."
In addition to the theaters, the education center will encompass three classrooms and a learning center. It will be capable of both interactive learning experiences and engaging in distance learning, Dressner pointed out.
Probably the most unusual aspect of the education center is its location. The 28-foot-high building will be underground and have exposure on only one side so as to blend into the pastoral landscape.
It will be located behind the present visitor center/gift shop and stretch toward the mansion. The side nearest the present food court of the Visitors Center will be exposed "to avoid the feeling of a tunnel," Dressner clarified. Atop the center will be a pasture with grazing livestock.
"Instead of visitors entering through the Texas Gate, as they do now, they will come in through the orientation center, where they can view the film and gain other knowledge before proceeding to the mansion. Those who do not wish to see the movie or who have already done so can go directly to the mansion by a new ground-level path," he said.
There will also be separate entrances for individual tourists and bus groups. "Disney is working with us, on a consulting basis, to facilitate the traffic flow," Dressner noted.
ANOTHER CRITICAL ASPECT to accomplishing the mission of not only reintroducing Washington to America but also reigniting a new American-history enlightenment is the teacher learning center. It will serve as the new home of the George Washington Teachers Institute, established in 1999 for elementary and secondary schoolteachers.
"This Institute is ongoing every summer. There are 100 teachers from throughout the country who come to learn about George Washington and increase their knowledge of American history," Walton explained. "There are 10 teachers from 10 different states."
They reside at Mount Vernon for one week in July. The program consists of lectures, tours and discussion groups, supplemented by field trips to other Washington-related sites. Teachers who take part are required to create lesson plans for their own classrooms and to develop special training sessions for others in their home school districts.
"It has been very successful, and we hope that will increase. One example of its success is that there is now a First Night Ball in Biloxi, Miss., each year," Walton enthused.
This new learning complex will be the nerve center of Mount Vernon's outreach programs. It will enable teachers to access the 40,000 Washington letters still available. The three classrooms will be equipped to facilitate distance learning. A hands-on history room will be designed and staffed to awaken student interest in American history.
As stated in the literature supplied to potential donors, "Once these new facilities and experiences are introduced, virtually no question about Washington will go unanswered, and no aspect of his remarkable life will be ignored. Students will once again understand the difference between a celebrity and a genuine hero."