October 27, 2006 marked Mount Vernon Estate's metamorphosis from tourist attraction to one of the prime venues in the nation for anyone interested in American history and the role played by George Washington in bringing to fruition what has been described as "the grand experiment." That day marked the culmination of a 15 year dream coupled with planning, designing, fund raising, and dedication focused on a single purpose -- the creation of the Ford Orientation Center and Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.
As stated by David McCullough, author of "1776," in his keynote address during the dedication ceremony before 700 philanthropic donors, national dignitaries, political leaders, Ladies' Association Regents, and ordinary citizens, "What a sense of gratification George Washington would feel. If ever there was an American who made his life meaningful for freedom it was George Washington."
What made that day, and virtually all days at Mount Vernon Estate, so impressive, aside from the new spectacular addition to America's first president's home, was the fact that every dollar of the $110 million investment in the two new structures was private money. From that day in 1853 when Pamela Cunningham decided to rescue Washington's home from decay and destruction, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association she founded have neither taken nor utilized any public monies in their efforts.
Both the Orientation Center and Museum/Education were designed and constructed in such a way as not to detract from the Mansion itself. In fact, the pasture where farm animals have grazed for decades remains over the top of the museum.
With an 18 minute action adventure movie, two exhibits, introductory information, a spectacular stained glass window-wall featuring five critical scenes from Washington life, and life size bronze statues of George, Martha and Mrs. Washington's two grandchildren, Nelly and Washy, the Orientation Center prepares visitors for their 18th century American history journey. It is a dynamic representation of Ford Motor Company's continuing support for Mount Vernon which originated in 1923 with Henry Ford's donation of the Estate's first fire engine.
The 66,700 square feet underground Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center was made possible by a $24 million donation from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. It is the largest single donation in Mount Vernon Estate's history, according to Executive Director James C. Rees.
The museum features over 500 objects in six permanent galleries as well as a changing exhibition space. This new museum/education center "promises to become the equivalent of a presidential library," according to Fred W. Smith, Board chairman, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.
With three theaters, 23 galleries, and multiple educational vignettes, the entire venue is designed to not only captivate visitors but educate and allow them to get to know the "real" George Washington from youth through death. The Museum/Education Center is not something that can be adequately absorbed in a single visit.
As stated by Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald Connolly following his visit on opening day, "This is a great addition to the historical treasure trove that is Fairfax County. He (Washington) is the jewel in the crown for us."
MOUNT VERNON ESTATE experienced another significant event in 2006 with the retirement of William Sommerfield who has portrayed George Washington at Mount Vernon and throughout the world for the past two decades. The gravity of that event was best summarized by Rees at the conclusion of Sommerfield's final performance entitled "The Lion in Winter" on the Mount Vernon stage. "The man is George Washington," Rees said.
Sommerfield was first selected to portray Washington is 1989 by Chief Justice Warren Berger who was serving as head of the Bicentennial Commission on the U.S. Constitution. Accomplishing that feat Sommerfield beat out a heavily favored Charlton Heston for the role.
As the founder, along with his wife Pamela, of The American Historical Theatre, previously known as The Royal Pickwickians in Philadelphia, PA, Sommerfield since his selection has devoted his "full attention to a detailed study of Washington's life." This has included writing hundreds of performances and plays about America's founding father.
The Sommerfields' American Historical Theater has produced many actors that portray leading American historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Betsy Ross, and many others. One of those actors will officially take over the role of George Washington on January 12, 2007 during ceremonies at Mount Vernon Estate.
Dean Malissa, also of Philadelphia, was hand picked by Sommerfield to assume this demanding role. The new challenge will encompass making Washington and his contributions to American history interesting and real to 21st century Americans with their penchant for technology and sound bites.
"When I first took on this role what I knew about George Washington, the man, would have filled a thimble and most of that, I learned, was myth," said Malissa during a December 2006 interview.
This new George Washington made his first appearance in the role in February 2001. That entire first year he portrayed Washington fewer than 15 times. In 2006 that had risen to between 160 and 170 days.
Thus 2007 brings with it two new chapters to Mr. Washington's home. Each is designed to heighten the nation's awareness and knowledge of the man, and his times, that brought forth The United States of America.