Upon her retirement as the founder and first Regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, Ann Pamela Cunningham had laid down an uncompromising edict to those that would follow in hers and their mission to preserve the estate of the nation's first President.
"...Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress...Let one spot of this grand country of ours be saved from "change!"
That charge, however, ran smack into reality in 1916. And, that reality brought forth an equally strong personality in the person of Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vice Regent for California, who served on the board from 1889 to 1918.
In 1916 the board was faced with a dilemma. Maintain the strict authenticity Cunningham had insisted upon 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. He proposed to install a system powered by generator-fed storage batteries at a cost of $3,325.
The minutes of the 1916 board meeting summarized the dilemma:
"The proposed installation of electricity...came as a shock to the Vice Regents, seeming to be most incongruous in this antique home where everything in the way of colonial customs is preserved as far as possible. The question of safety was the strongest argument used, kerosene lamps and candles being considered dangerous ... After all, kerosene was as unknown to Washington as electricity..."
After being nudged by Hearst, the board voted in favor of electrifying the mansion. 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 art works for the mansion, and helped finance the construction of the wharf and pavilion. These were all in addition to her regular contributions to the association's endowment.
IN 1955 ANOTHER strong and determined visionary came to the rescue of Mount Vernon's preservation. Her efforts were considered so meaningful that 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."
What Wall was referring to was the single handed action of Ohio Congresswoman and Vice Regent from that state, Frances Payne Bolton, to preserve the pristine view across the Potomac River. Securing that view was essential to preserving Washington's design of the mansion which was to fit in with and compliment the landscape.
Coming onto the board in 1938, just two years prior to assuming her late husband's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, 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. Adding insult to injury, they offered to construct the treatment plant to resemble the mansion.
When Congress refused to appropriate the necessary funds to purchase the land, she did it herself by personally buying the parcel known as Bryan's Point for $333,000. 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."
UPON LEAVING Congress in 1968 as a result of redistricting, she became president of the foundation, a position she held until her death in 1976. Bolton also successfully lobbied her congressional colleagues against air traffic over Mount Vernon, securing a two mile protective zone in all directions. These two actions earned her the distinction of being referred to in the Association's minutes of 1977 as "second only to Ann Pamela Cunningham" in preserving the Estate.
Throughout its 150-year history the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has not only successfully restored and preserved George and Martha's home, but they have also spawned a myriad preservation projects and organizations nationwide dedicated to living American history. Not the least of which was the first entire town to be preserved — Williamsburg.
Other sites that exist as today's living testaments to the past because of Cunningham and her ladies include: Valley Forge National Park; The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village; and nearly 12,000 historic districts throughout the nation. The Association was also the inspiration for the American Buildings Survey in 1934 which provided jobs for many unemployed architects and photographers at the height of the Great Depression.
In 1949, nearly 100 years after the founding of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association the National Trust for Historic Preservation was formed. It was the first example of the public and private sectors joining together to further historic preservation.
CONGRESS PASSED the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Later it established the National Register of Historic Places, which is the nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. This is a perpetually growing rostrum.
Not only did the Ladies Association establish the fertile soil upon which preservation in the nation flourished it also built the irrigation system — philanthropy. As noted in its history, "A key component ... of the Association was its structure, a format ... duplicated by other historic organizations." Cunningham stated:
"The Association is strictly national. It is under the management of a Regent and Vice Regents, to be selected, one, from every state of the Union..."
The Vice Regents became an extensive national network for fundraising that began at the local level. "This targeted philanthropic approach gave each state a sense of ownership of Mount Vernon. Cunningham selected influential women to serve on the board with the unprecedented mandate that raising money was a primary responsibility." That remains today.
Ellen Walton, the present Regent, from Pittsburgh, explained at their just completed board meeting, "Among our many projects and solicitations, we have an auction each year at which Ford Motor Company often donates a car. This year its going to be a Jaguar."
Boyce Ansley, Vice Regent from Atlanta, noted, "I have been on the board for 16 years and I do a lot of fundraising. I love being involved and I've seen a lot of changes, going from total preservation to more emphasis on education." That observation was buttressed by New Jersey Vice Regent Ann West. "You need more than preservationists on the board today," she said.
IN ORDER TO broaden the focus of the Association and revive knowledge of George Washington the man, the Association, during Walton's tenure has initiated one of the Estate's most ambitious programs in its 150-year history.
Under the theme, "George Washington: To Keep Him First," it is an $85 million campaign to finance a new education center and program to enlighten visitors about all aspects of the first President's life and values.
"A few years ago we enlarged our mission statement to include the life and legacy of Washington. He really put thinking about this country ahead of himself. We felt we needed to do this because we have noticed a steady decline in the nation's knowledge about Washington and what he really stood for. We need to tell more the story of Washington, the man," Walton insisted.
In addition to activities and plans at the Estate, the National Building Museum in the District of Columbia unveiled a multi-room display entitled "Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America." It is dedicated to the Association, past and present. It opened February 15 and will close on September 21.
Made possible by Ford Motor Company, which marks its own centennial this year, the exhibit presents an overview of the evolution of the Association as well as a wide variety of artifacts. One of the most outstanding features is Mount Vernon in Miniature.
Designed and built by Stan Ohman and a team of miniaturists from Washington state, the extensive detailed and furnished mansion is mechanized to open and close periodically giving the viewer an intimate look at each feature. Measuring 10 feet long, eight feet high, and nearly six feet wide, it took five years to complete.
ONE HUNDRED and fifty years after Ann Pamela Cunningham sent that letter to the Charleston Mercury, there are only 25 states represented in the association. Two that are not represented at the present are South Carolina and Ohio, the home states of Cunningham and Bolton.
"We look for the person first," Walton declared in explaining how someone is asked to become a member. That is evidenced by the historic badge worn by each Vice Regent. It's emblematic of the commitment required of each board member.
"When a woman retires from the Association, she turns in her badge. It is kept at Mount Vernon until another person from the retiring member's state is invited into membership," explained Emily Kangas, assistant director of marketing for the Estate.
Both the national historic preservation movement and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union have evolved over the years. That process is continuing. But, Louisa Cunningham's question as to "Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?" has been answered 150 years over.