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The Ladies Who Preserve the Nation

Mount Vernon's regents raise the stakes of national preservation.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first of two parts on the story of how the Mount Vernon Estate was saved and preserved to this day. It's the story of the Ladies of Mount Vernon celebrating its 150 years of preservation work.

Historic preservation in America celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2003. So does the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union. The two are synonymous.

It all started with a personal tragedy that brought forth a national treasure. It started with Ann Pamela Cunningham — "A Southern Matron."

At 17, Cunningham suffered a spinal injury after being thrown from a horse. It caused her to be "confined to her couch" at Rosemont, the family's South Carolina plantation, for the next 21 years and resulted in a lifelong battle with chronic pain.

That cause and effect also defined the mettle of a woman who single-handedly established the first preservationist organization in the United States. And it anchored the determination and dedication of this socially privileged female to save not only the home but also the ideals of the nation's founding father.

As part of her lifelong treatment for the spinal injury, Cunningham made regular trips to Philadelphia. That's where she was in the fall of 1853, at age 37, when her mother, Louisa Dalton Bird Cunningham, cruised past Mount Vernon on a ship taking her back to their home in South Carolina after attending to her daughter's medical arrangements.

Upon her arrival, Louisa Cunningham wrote the following to her daughter:

"It was a lovely moonlit night that we went down the Potomac. I went on deck as the bell tolled, and we passed Mount Vernon. I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?"

PAMELA CUNNINGHAM answered that rhetorical question with a letter to the Charleston Mercury, which was published Dec. 2, 1853. It was a plea to the ladies of the South to join together to save Mount Vernon.

At that time it was deemed inappropriate for a woman's name to appear in the newspaper except on the occasion of her marriage or death. Therefore, Cunningham signed her plea, "A Southern Matron."

When the appeal resulted in donations from throughout the South, Cunningham increased her scope to include the Northern states as well. She also dropped the guise of Southern Matron and signed her own name to all future published letters.

As more and more newspapers published her appeals, influential women from throughout the nation agreed to become the original vice regents of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union. Their first meeting was held in 1854 with the hope that donations funneling through the various governors' offices would be sent to the governor of Virginia, providing the necessary funds for the commonwealth to purchase and preserve the estate.

BUT NEITHER Virginia nor the federal government saw that as a priority at the time. Another vision had begun to materialize over the Potomac — The Civil War — just seven years in the future. Undeterred, Cunningham launched her crusade to have the Association purchase, restore and preserve Mount Vernon Estate.

That's when she encountered her next formidable challenge, John Augustine Washington III, the general's great-grandnephew, who became the owner of the estate in 1829. His vision was to sell it to either the state of Virginia or the federal government to be preserved as a national shrine. He fared no better than Cunningham in that desire.

On April 6, 1858, Washington and The Ladies signed a contract of sale for $200,000, equivalent to nearly $4 million in today's dollars. According to the Association's annual report of 1858, the terms were "$18,000 down, with an additional $57,000 to be paid no later than the first of the new year." The remaining balance was to be satisfied in three annual installments.

Within the next two years, thousands of donations poured in, including one from then President James Buchanan. The Ladies paid the final installment on Dec. 9, 1859, more than two years ahead of deadline. They officially took possession on Feb. 22, 1860, the 128th anniversary of Washington's birthday and 13-plus months before the outbreak of the Civil War.

DUE TO HER INJURY and need for constant medical treatment, Cunningham had little hope of marriage and family, so Mount Vernon became her life. She and her secretary, Sarah Tracy, moved into the estate upon the Association's acquisition to begin the process of restoration and preservation.

The house was empty except for the key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette, a globe in Washington's study, and a bust of Washington created by Jean-Antoine Houdon, a French sculptor, who created it from a mask made of Washington face.

A few months after they moved in, Cunningham return to South Carolina due to the death of her father. Her plan was to return as soon as possible, but war broke out in April 1861. It prevented her return for six years.

But she insisted that the home of Washington be sheltered from the conflict. It was agreed to by both sides, and, for insurance, she persuaded Tracy to remain there, along with Upton Herbert, the superintendent selected at the suggestion of the Washingtons, and a handful of workmen and servants.

Tracy garnered pledges from both the North and South that no troops would enter Mount Vernon grounds "under arms." She also saw to it that the pledge was upheld throughout the conflict by meeting with new officers as they rotated into the area.

It was also Tracy who transported, through Union lines, the $200,000 paid for Mount Vernon. Hidden under a basket of eggs, the funds were transferred from Burke and Herbert Bank in Alexandria to Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C. There they remained secure from confiscation until the war ended.

ON HER RETURN to Mount Vernon, Cunningham resisted all suggestions that the estate be made into something other than a living testament to the first president. In her farewell address to the Association, she issued the following statement, which is its guiding mission to this day:

"Ladies, the home of Washington is in your charge. See to it that you keep it the home of Washington. Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress! Those who go to the Home in which he lived and died wish to see in what he lived and died! Let one spot of this grand country of ours be saved from ‘change!’ Upon you rests this duty."

As former Regent Elswyth Thane once remarked of Cunningham, she had an "extreme projection into the future" and an "unfailing sense of permanence and continuity in the things she wanted to do." She has been followed by many others who have shared that vision and commitment.

TWO OF THOSE were Phoebe Apperson Hearst, vice regent for California, who served on the board from 1889-1918, and Frances Payne Bolton, vice regent for Ohio and U.S. congresswoman from that state. She joined the board in 1938, just two years prior to assuming her late husband's seat in Congress, which she held until redistricting forced her out in 1968.

In 1916, the board was faced with a dilemma: maintain strict authenticity by having the house lighted only by candlelight and kerosene, or take the offer of the firm of Thomas Edison, who wanted to "electrify" it. Edison offered to install a system powered by generator-fed storage batteries at a cost of $3,325.

After being nudged by Hearst, the board voted in favor of electricity. She not only persuaded them to do so, she paid the bill.

As one of the great philanthropists of the era, Hearst had also written checks for Mount Vernon's seawall, purchased period furniture and artworks for the mansion, and helped finance the construction of the wharf and pavilion. These were all in addition to regular contributions to the Association's endowment.

Bolton is credited with preserving the pristine view across the Potomac enjoyed by visitors to the Estate and in lobbying against air traffic over Mount Vernon, securing a 2-mile protective zone in all directions. These efforts have earned her the distinction of being "second only to Ann Pamela Cunningham" herself in preservation of the Estate.

IN 1955, Bolton prevented the sale of 500 acres, directly across the river, to a group of Texas investors who had plans for an oil tank farm and sewage treatment plant. She did this by personally buying the land known as Bryan's Point for $333,000.

Charles Cecil Wall, resident director at the time, stated, "Nothing so wonderful has happened since Miss Cunningham signed the agreement with John A. Washington Jr." Preserving the view was essential to preserving Washington's design of the mansion, which was to fit in with the landscape.

As a result of this action, Bolton, with the support of the National Park Service, formed the Accokeek Foundation in 1957 "to preserve, protect, and foster ... an area of great beauty along the Maryland shore." She remained president of that Foundation until her death in 1976.

Now, 150 years after that letter to the Charleston Mercury, the 21st-century Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union is not only continuing Cunningham's mission but also expanding it to increase knowledge of George Washington and his ideals.

"We need to tell more of the story of Washington the Man," Mrs. James W. "Ellen" Walton, the present regent of the association, said. "And that's what were going to do."

(Next week: Mount Vernon Estate flourishes and looks to the future.)