Once is definitely not enough. That could well be the rallying call for Mount Vernon Estate's new Ford Orientation Center and Reynolds Museum/Education Center.
That was definitely the consensus of Mount Vernon patrons who got their own special preview day of the recently completed $100 million plus visitor orientation center and combination museum and gallery designed to tell the complete story of America's first president, George Washington — his life, times, struggles, accomplishments, and death. Both inside and out, no detail has been left to chance.
At one time during the construction process James Rees, executive director, Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, said that one of the primary goals of the project was to bring George Washington to life for one of the toughest constituencies to impress. That person was an eighth-grade male, according to research. "If we can accomplish that, it will be a success," he said.
Upon exiting the first showing of one of the large screen movies to be shown in the four theaters spaced throughout the complex, 11-year-old Willard McMullin of Strafford Landing, slightly outside the statistical model but certainly close enough, summed up his assessment in one phrase, "That was cool."
The show to which he was referring traced the American Revolutionary War against Great Britain, the world’s mightiest power of its day, from its stumbling beginnings to the siege at Yorktown and the British surrender. "This whole thing makes American history really real," he said.
That it did. The American cannonade assault on the British boxed in at Boston harbor made the seats in the stadium style theater shake. And, when Washington crossed the Delaware River on that Christmas night the audience literally experienced the snow fall he and his ragtag troops endured to defeat the Hessian mercenary forces encamped at Trenton.
Yes, simulated snow really does fall on the audience. "The snow flakes and the seats shaking — that was awesome," McMullin repeated. "It was not only interesting and informative but it will be an excellent teaching tool for school children. It covered every aspect of the Revolutionary War," said Jim McMullin.
"For the many Americans who have never really studied American history, this is the best way to convey what America went through to become a nation. Mount Vernon now has a museum like other historic sites. That's what's been missing," said Milan Yeager a nearby resident of Mount Vernon Estate.
WHAT BOTH the McMullins and Yeager were experiencing was a Mount Vernon Patrons pre-showing of the new Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum/Gallery scheduled for official dedication this Friday, Oct. 27. More than 2,000 patrons took advantage of the invitation opportunity to view the various exhibits, art, and artifacts on display in both the Center and the museum/galleries.
"This is really great. We were here just three days ago and its amazing what has been accomplished just since then," said Phillip W. Worrall, AIA, Graves, Worrell, Wright & O'Hatnick, architects for the vast, new complex which stretches both above and below ground.
"We did the master planning for this project back in 1995. One of the great successes is how we were able to nestle the Orientation Center into the landscape without impacting the historic significance of the Mansion and grounds," he said.
From the Mansion and Bowling Green visitors would never be aware that either the Center or museum/galleries existed. "Originally we thought of putting both the Orientation Center and Museum/Galleries underground, but we decided it was better to have people at ground level upon entering the Center. It also brings the outside in and the new landscaping enhances the building," he said.
Immediately inside the Orientation Center entrance visitors are greeted by life size bronze sculptures of George and Martha Washington with their nieces. On the wall to the left is a large map with four video screens designed to aid visitor in "How To Plan Your Visit."
Further enlivening this first stop on the tour is a 30-foot stained glass wall depicting "moments of truth" in Washington's life and times. It serves as the initial opening to the project's overall goal of introducing 21st Century Americans to the 18th century "real George Washington."
Created more than 50 years ago, the glass story depicts four "moments of truth" in Washington's life including that illustrious cherry tree. It shines both during the day and at night via a special lighting design.
As Rees has said since the beginning of the project, "You have to really get to know the man in order to really appreciate his home and his times."
One of the real crowd pleasers in the large open, marble floored, Orientation Center lobby is the mechanized miniature model of the Mount Vernon Mansion. It is meticulously designed model that explains a variety of details through a raising roof and authentic room furnishings.
IT TOOK FIVE YEARS WORK by some of the nation's leading miniaturists and more than $500,000 to capture the authenticity of the home and its furnishings. It had been displayed at the National Building Museum prior to being moved to the new Center.
The highlight of the Center are the twin theaters that will show a $5 million action adventure film that brings Washington to life from his early teenage years to commanding the Revolutionary War Army. This Friday Americans will come face-to-face with their first and foremost Commander-In -Chief.
Each theater has a 40-foot wide screen designed to bring to life the man that set the standard for the American experiment. Created by Hollywood's historical film specialists, Greystone Productions, it was filmed over six weeks at the Estate, in Williamsburg, and along the banks of the James River.
Titled, "We Fight To Be Free," it stars Sebastian Roche as Washington and Caroline Goodall as Martha Custis Washington. Although there were 16 hours of filming the finished product totals just under 20 minutes. With two theaters in constant operation the wait time for audiences is planned at no more than 15 minutes.
Two additional films, one of approximately 15 minutes and the other of five minutes, depict Washington's successes in the Revolutionary War and the other, shown in a standing theater-in-the-round, titled "Legacy," focuses on his eulogy and innate character of decency, honesty and dedication to the fledgling nation he guided to being.
VISITORS ENTERING the Reynolds Museum/Galleries are immediately introduced to a bronze bust of the late Donald W. Reynolds, the Oklahoma media mogul/philanthropist whose foundation presented the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association with the largest single monetary gift in their history to be used to create this lasting tribute to the "father" of the nation.
As patrons descended the marble staircase into the below ground facilities they were met by a larger-then-life head of Washington with eyes designed to follow each visitor until they entered either the galleries or museum area. The former concentrates on various items previously not on display dealing with the Mansion and its furnishings and art. The latter is Washington the man — his life and times.
The museum element is so captivating it is extremely difficult to fully digest it in a single visit. It traces Washington's life from a 19-year-old surveyor, through the French and Indian War, through the political struggles with Great Britain over taxes, to Valley Forge and Yorktown, and eventually his swearing in on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall as America's first President.
Throughout the museum there are individual video presentations about not only Washington but also his times and how the museum came to be. There is Washington the Commanding General, the spymaster, the politician, the statesman, and the natural born leader at the Constitutional Convention.
There is also Washington the slave owner and how he dealt with that in light of the Declaration of Independence that "All men are created equal." And finally there is the solitary black casket that held the body of a man that never suffered a single wound throughout countless battlefield engagements though he presented a perfect target at 6 feet 2 inches seated upon his white stallion.
One of the most intriguing exhibits is that of the forensic science used to create Washington's likeness. Each step of the operation is explained by a video presentation with various molds and masks used in the process on display.
This Friday, Oct. 27, at 11 a.m., all 25 state-of-the-art galleries, theaters, museum, and Orientation Center will be officially dedicated with a ceremony on the pasture roof of the Reynolds Museum/Education Center. Highlighting that event will be remarks by Pulitzer prize winning author David MuCullough and veteran broadcaster Roger Mudd.
The entire project has taken more than a decade encompassing a $110 million campaign by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, of which gifts from the Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, and Donald W. Reynolds Foundation were major parts. Robert H. and Clarice Smith of Arlington, also have made major contributions to the new facilities and landscaping.
However, when all the pomp and circumstance has subsided and individual visitors from throughout the world begin to pass through the 66,700 square feet complex tucked 65 percent under the four acre pasture just inside Mount Vernon's Main gate all the speeches and praise can best be summed up by the unpretentious summation of 11-year-old boy, "It's cool." George, the man and entrepreneur, would undoubtedly agree.