A Back to the Future Groundbreaking

A Back to the Future Groundbreaking

Mount Vernon Estate's new center officially underway.

An $85 million grazing area for sheep drew a crowd of 300-plus to Mount Vernon Estate last Friday to endure unseasonable heat and humidity under a tent as they watched the head steward of George Washington's home get plastered. It was all done to further a goal "To Keep Him First."

The event was the official groundbreaking for the new visitor orientation/education/museum center designed to enhance and preserve not only the memory of America's first President but also to introduce present and future generations to the real man and his myriad accomplishments.

The new center is the most ambitious single financial undertaking in the 151 year history of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of The Union. It began two years ago under the leadership of Association Regent Mrs. James W. "Ellen" Walton of Pittsburgh, PA. Entitled, "To Keep Him First," it is scheduled to open in 2006.

As for Mount Vernon Estate Executive Director James Rees, the plastering was a live demonstration of how Jean Antoine Houdon created the terracotta bust of Washington in 1785. It proved to be the most accurate likeness of the nation's founding father and, history maintains, "the family's favorite representation of him."

Rees volunteered to have a "life mask" made of his face during the hour-long groundbreaking ceremony. This required him to lay on a raised padded table on stage while artist Sue Anne Martin from Studio Ice, New York City, applied the plaster coated material that eventually became his hardened likeness.

IN ORDER TO accentuate the various visual impressions of Washington, Georgia Vice Regent Boyce Ansley, kicked off the ceremonies by having enlargements of George Washington paintings done by Robert Edge Paine, Rembrandt Peale, Jean Baptiste Le Paon and one 18th century engraver brought on stage. "We all know portrait painters tend to take liberties," she concluded.

In the creation of Washington's life mask he supposedly remained still on a table with straws in his nose for 45 minutes while the plaster dried, according to Ansley. The mask was then removed from Washington and the bust was created.

Unfortunately, Friday's heat and humidity worked against the process even though a modern substance was applied to Rees' face prior to the plaster to encourage a faster drying process. The final mask was not on display until the luncheon at Rees' home following the groundbreaking ceremonies.

The other highlight of the event was the planting of a 30-foot red maple tree. It was the symbol of an increase to the $10 million grant provided by Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Smith. The trees around the new center will be mature specimens in order to present "an established presence from the beginning."

As Smith noted, "The past and present will live together side by side in perfect harmony. This plan calls for all 12 original structures to survive and become better. In that vain I've established a fund for the purchase of large mature trees."

Since the red maple was native to Mount Vernon, 30 the size of the one planted at the ceremony will be put in place prior to opening the new center. Overall the gift calls for 200 native trees to be planted throughout the Estate.

"It would be impossible to do too much for George Washington," Smith said. "He was the leader of leaders who pulled it all together."

AS KEYNOTE SPEAKER, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, noted although the Mount Vernon Ladies Association receives no state or federal monies to aid their preservation efforts, "they still remain polite and cordial to state and federal officials."

O'Connor acknowledged, "What the ladies hope to save this time is not the Estate and grounds but George Washington himself. A visit to Mount Vernon upon completion of this project will be far more relevant."

As she assessed it, "Washington is not just another hero. He stands apart. Just as he brought Americans together in his lifetime, I believe he can bring them together today."

Texas Vice Regent Ann Bookout announced the recognition of donors who had made pledges of $500,000 or more to the project. They were Robert M. Frehse, Jr., Richard S. Reynolds, III, Steven Hartwell and Harry Lister, Robert and Gene Seamans, Dr. Peter Cressy, Melody Richardson, Albert M. Small, and Gay Hart Gaines, Florida Vice Regent and incoming Regent, Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

Special tribute was paid to the Ford Motor Company which has supported the preservation of Mount Vernon Estate since Henry Ford's visit in 1923. Following that trip Ford donated the Estate's first fire truck because he viewed fire as the greatest risk to this national treasure.

Since that time, in addition to being one of the Estate's "most generous donors," Ford Motor Company "has followed their founder's lead with several new fire engines, dozens of vehicles, and millions of dollars." In recognition of that, Sandy Ulsh, president, Ford Motor Company Fund, was made an honorary Fire Chief of MT. Vernon Estate.

THE INITIAL GIFT two years ago of $15 million was provided by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. Since then they have increased that gift to provide funds for the museum.

In acknowledging those gifts, Regent Walton said, "Two years from now we will proudly cut the ribbon on the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, a remarkable 38,000 square foot structure, featuring original artifacts, three state-of-the-art theaters, nine video programs, and more interactive experiences than you can possibly imagine.

"If all goes well you'll see it snow when Washington crosses the Delaware. You'll be able to not just see the different crops Washington grew, but sniff them as well. And as you travel through this amazing facility, you'll ... see five life-size models of George Washington in all his gritty glory...," she said.

Plans also call for the establishment of a George Washington Presidential Library. These did not exist under much later in American history.

In closing, Walton called to the stage Fred W. Smith, chairman; Steve Anderson, president; Barbara Smith Campbell, Neal Pendergraft, Wes Smith, Debby Smith Magness, and Dr. Jonathan Smith, all Foundation board members. As a way of initiating future visitors to the Estate, Ron Maxwell, award winning producer and director of "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals" will create Mount Vernon's first orientation film. As explained by Richard B. Dressner, associate director of development, Mount Vernon Estate, at the commencement of the project, the expansion program is designed to do what it can to reverse "the dumming down of history."

AT THE OUTSET Walton summarized the project's goal by saying, "Unfortunately, teaching American History just doesn't seem that important anymore. We need to find ways to expand the opportunity to teach history and about George Washington in particular."

Hopefully, that will be accomplished with the new visitors' Education Complex, Museum, and Orientation Center. The latter will be located just inside the main gate, screened by a grove of trees and accentuated by a small garden center.

The 28-foot high Education Center and Museum will be located immediately behind the present visitor center/gift shop and stretch toward the Mansion. It will be underground with only one side exposed "to avoid the feeling of a tunnel." Above that will be the grazing sheep. As noted at the groundbreaking, cows and steers are too heavy.

Instead of visitors entering through the Texas Gate, as they do now, they will come in through the Orientation Center where they can view the film and gain other knowledge before proceeding to the Mansion. Those who do not wish to see the movie or who have already done so can go directly to the Mansion by a new ground level path, according to Mount Vernon officials.

All of this is designed to accomplish what Walton stated at the groundbreaking. "Young American are losing touch with George Washington at a time when his example of character and leadership are more important and more needed than ever. We must take risks — pull out all the stops — to make Washington the exciting, dynamic, electrifying force that we know he can be, if we can only tell his true life story."