The Indispensable Library

The Indispensable Library

$40 million facility now taking shape at Mount Vernon Estate; opening set for September.


The library is currently under construction on Mount Vernon Memorial Highway.

Drivers zooming along Mount Vernon Memorial Highway are seeing history in the making.

There, nestled in the thick woods of George Washington's estate, is a construction zone that will shape how future generations will view a figure historian James Thomas Flexner dubbed "The Indispensable Man." The Fred W. Smith National Library will offer an academic setting for scholars to conduct archival research and meet for classes. It also has eight residential units for students who lucky enough to snag a fellowship from the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

"More than a million people come to Mount Vernon every year to learn about the life of George Washington, but it's a very episodic exposure. They may be here for one hour or two hours," said Stewart McClaurin, vice president of association who will oversee the library when it opens this fall. "What's different about this is that it will be a platform for serious scholarship here at Mount Vernon, and we have not had that capacity before."

When it opens this September, the facility will not be a "presidential library" in the formal sense, with federal dollars that are overseen by the government-run Office of Presidential Libraries, which is part of the National Archives. Instead, the building will be privately owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association — an organization formed in the 1850s to preserve the crumbling mansion. The idea for the national library was the brainchild of former director Jim Reese.

"We don’t want Johnny to write his term paper here," said Rees in a 2009 interview. "At the same time, we want scholars to think of us first in terms of the place to go — a scholarly retreat that’s very much at home in the forest."

THE LADIES ASSOCIATION has assembled a $100 million capital campaign. About a third of that is for construction of the facility, which is expected to be LEED certified. Most of the money will go to creating a series of endowments that will handle operating costs, programs and a series of fellowships for scholars in residence. Short-term fellowships will be $10,000 and long-term fellowships will be $20,000.

"It's not like we have to go back and continually raise operating costs once it's open," said McLaurin. "It's historic, really in terms of what's been raised and the new friends that have been engaged to be supportive of this endeavor."

The library will officially open with pomp and circumstance Sept. 27. A few days later, cameras from C-SPAN will arrive for the first broadcast opportunity — an undergraduate class from George Washington University will be meeting at the library for a discussion about the first president. The broadcast will feature professor Denver Drunsman, who will be speaking on "George Washington as Intellectual" for a class titled "George Washington and His World." The facility will be available for corporate and government retreats, although it won't be open to community organizations.

"I had some hopes that the estate might consider making the facility open to community organizations for events, but my understanding is that that's not something they want to consider yet," said Del. Scott Surovell (D-44), who represents the area in Richmond. "But anything that enhances the visibility of the Mount Vernon Estate benefits our community because it brings commerce into our area."

UNLIKE RECENT additions to the estate, which were inward-focused projects geared toward tourists, the library is outward-focused and attract researchers and scholars from across the world. The focus at the library will be what organizers are calling the "life, legacy and leadership" of George Washington.

"This is different from any other library because it's about George Washington and the founding era," said McClaurin.

Last summer, the library purchased George Washington's copy of the U.S. Constitution at auction. Since that time, the historic document has been on tour of the presidential libraries as part of a partnership between the national library and the National Archives. Its tour of America will conclude here at Mount Vernon, where the item will become the cornerstone of the library's collection.