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Looking Ahead to the Past’s Future: Education Center Advancing Rapidly

History lives within Mount Vernon’s new education complex.

These United State became what the nation’s first president envisioned and what it’s 16th put into words — a government of, by and for the people. However, it was George Washington, the citizen-soldier, who not only refused to become a king but also refused to become president for life.

It is his dedication to an untested form of government coupled with his natural leadership and common-man agrarian orientation that came together in this individual, hailed as the “Father of the Country,” to which Mount Vernon Estate’s new Orientation/Education Center is dedicated. As stated by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, owner of the Estate, when they unveiled the $85 million project in 2002, “it is to keep the true legacy of Washington, the man, alive.”

As envisioned, the project is intended to transform a visit to Mount Vernon 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,” said Mrs. James W. “Ellen” Walton, Regent of the Association, at the time of the original announcement.

James C. Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate, said at the project’s initiation, “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.”

THIS FALL that promise will become a reality with the grand opening of the 66,700-square-feet center that will not only welcome quests to the Estate but also serve as a comprehensive educational facility about Washington’s life, times, and experiences.

“This whole experience is to get away from the grumpy guy on the dollar bill and introduce people to the real man that became the father of our country,” said Stephanie Brown, marketing director, Mount Vernon Estate, as she began the tour of the new center, now under roof and taking on the true character of its future.

To highlight this objective, the Orientation Center looks out onto a reconstructed meadow which will include grazing sheep and more than 60 trees of various species that were cultivated by Washington on his plantation. “This new entrance is much more in keeping with Washington pastoral appreciation,” said Sean M. Regan, managing director, Regan Associates and project construction supervisor.

“As visitors enter they will be immediately greeted by four life-size bronze statutes of George, Martha and their family. The interior of this orientation area has been kept very light with highly polished limestone floors and the curved glass wall looking out onto the pasture,” Regan said.

This entire orientation area is concealed from the historic area by a 30-foot brick wall to the rear that, due to the topography, is only six feet above ground, according to Regan. In addition to information areas that include both printed and audio materials, the center will have two theaters with alternating 18-minute presentations.

Both built on a stadium-seating design, the larger theater will seat 300 and the smaller 150. However, both have the same size screen, 40 feet wide by 18 feet high, “so that visitors will enjoy the same experience no matter which one they enter,” Regan said.

The plot of each movie begins with Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas eve. Audiences will feel the cold by experiencing falling “snow,” according to Brown. “But it will not be a wet snow falling on them. In fact it will dissipate before it actually touches the audience,” she assured.

A major focal point of the Orientation Center will be a miniature, furnished replica of the Mount Vernon Mansion. Designed and built by Stan Ohman and a team of miniaturists from Washington state, at a cost of $500,000, the intricately detailed and furnished model is mechanized to open and close periodically giving the viewer a personal look at each feature.

Measuring 10 feet long, eight feet high, and nearly six feet wide, it took five years to complete. It served as a centerpiece to the National Building Museum’s 2003 multi-room display entitled, “Saving Mount Vernon: The Birth of Preservation in America.” “It is now coming home,” Brown said.

THROUGHOUT THE EDUCATION Center individual visitors, groups, teachers and students will all be exposed to an array of information about Washington, his life, times and family. Upon entrance to this area, visitors will be greeted by a large sculptured head of America’s first Commander-In-Chief.

“The theme of this whole exhibit area is getting to know Washington much better — the real Washington,” said Christina Hills, assistant researcher, Mount Vernon Estate.

In order to accomplish that there are 23 theater and gallery spaces throughout Education Center that cover an array of subjects from the Revolutionary War, to Washington’s presidency, to his home and family life as the farmer/plantation owner-manager. It also deals with Washington as a slave owner and the individual lives of those slaves.

There are five theaters throughout the Education Center designed to provide various levels of sensory learning. These are complemented by such specialized areas as a hands-on history room geared to children age three to eight, and “peppers ghost” area, based on a theater concept, which shows Washington seated on a throne and then standing as a farmer, emphasizing his desire to have America be a democracy and not a monarchy.

“This is accomplished through visual technology as are many of the exhibits that bring him to life. One of the most impressive will be a life-size Washington whose eyes follow you as you enter the education area,” Hill said.

“This visual technique will also be used when Washington takes the oath of office for the presidency at Federal Hall in New York City. The Bible will be open to the exact page it was when he laid his hand on it,” she said.

A favorite exhibit of Hill’s, and sure to become one for visitors, is the planned “President’s Smile Gallery.” It will feature George’s dentures, in all their nonglory, with an explanation of how they were constructed and how uncomfortable they must have been.

“They were a lead alloy with lots of tension through a spring connection. If fact when they are on display they will have to be wired, otherwise they will just lay open because of that tension. We don’t believe these were the ones he wore every day. But, there are very few records about the dentures, even correspondence with his dentist. That’s how self-conscious he was about them,” Hill said.

OTHER GALLERIES under construction include:

v Reconstructing George Washington — To one side is the museum fronted by the well-known Houdon bust of Washington. To the other is the Education Center with its 12-foot high bust centered on a domed, concave, half circle space. Visitors will walk around this to enter an adjacent room known as the “forensic gallery.” Here, a History Channel film details the scientific process undertaken to recreate a forensically correct Washington.

v Young Virginian Gallery — Exiting from the reconstructing gallery visitors will embark on a journey through Washington’s life accentuated by such artifacts as the Washington bible, his christening goblet and a replica period writing table with an interactive “Rules of Civility” canvas book.

v Upstart Colonial Officer Gallery — The light in this area changes to create a dark and foreboding wilderness. It focuses on the French and Indian War with a diorama of Fort Necessity during the last day of that battle. He made mistakes from which he learned.

v Gentleman Planter/Revolutionary Gallery — Washington’s return to the Estate to be a Virginia gentleman and farmer. But, the restrictive colonial policies of Great Britain change his perspective. Displays here focus Washington’s personal life such as Pohick Church, a House of Burgesses cup, an a Freemasonry display case.

v First in War Gallery — Visitors are exposed to the challenges faced by Washington as the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief in organizing his “ragtag citizen army” to face the strongest most professional military force in the world at that time. There will be a Valley Forge Hut replica plus a second forensic of the General astride his white horse.

ADDITIONAL GALLERIES will take visitors to his inauguration and finally his return to Mount Vernon to pursue his interests as a visionary entrepreneur. Highlights here will encompass his Grist Mill and distillery plus the lives and assignments of his slaves.

The complex will also include a distance learning center, designed to connect people in their home communities with George Washington; the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Learning Center, “a virtual presidential library devoted to Washington’s life and times,” and the hands-on history area.

All of this is located under four feet of dirt and two feet of concrete, according to Regan. When completed, the pasture above the Education Center will be the grazing spot for Hogg Island sheep, such as Washington raised, “emphasizing Washington’s preference for a pastoral life,” according to Emily Coleman Dibella, assistant marketing director, Mount Vernon Estate.

By tucking 65 percent of the entire complex under the four-acre pasture just inside the main gate, the design guarantees views of the Mansion and Bowling Green will not be compromised. “Despite its significant size, the complex will nestle into the landscape, and visitors will not be aware of the scale of the buildings,” said Alan Reed, design principal, GWWO Inc./Architects.

“Also the infusion of natural light into the lobby and main circulation corridors at the Museum and Education Center will ease the transition to the lower level. Visitors will hardly realize they are underground,” Reed said.

Landscaping has also been approached on a collaborative basis between GWWO and EDAW, Inc., of Alexandria, according to Roger Courtney, EDAW principal and vice president. This collaboration ensures that the architecture and landscaping enhance each other as does the Mansion and Mount Vernon gardens.

The grand opening is scheduled for Oct. 27. Visitors will be able to experience the museum and Education at both the beginning and end of their visits to Mount Vernon. “By the end of their tour, visitors will realize why George Washington should be first in their hearts and minds,” Rees said.