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Revolutionary Changes Afoot at George and Martha's Mount Vernon Home

April 14, 2002|JURA KONCIUS | WASHINGTON POST

When visitors to Mount Vernon started asking if the faded, tattered red toile bed hangings in the Downstairs Bedroom were the originals from Martha and George Washington's days, curators agreed it was time for some gentle refurbishment.

So this year, fabrics and carpeting in four rooms at the mansion are undergoing a $100,000 make-over.

Changing anything at a house as historic as Mount Vernon can take years of painstaking research and documentation--as well as fund-raising. The goal of any change is to ensure that the rooms look even more like they did in 1799, the year George Washington died.

Most textiles in the much-visited Virginia mansion were installed more than 20 years ago. Over that time, new scholarship has concluded that stylish homes of Washington's era generally had a bolder, brighter look than what was being depicted.

"We learn new things with each new generation of scholars, and we want to make it as historically correct as possible," said Linda Ayres, Mount Vernon's associate director and director of collections.

Two rooms included in the current project have been completed. The ivory window treatments and brown leather chair seats in the Small Dining Room have been replaced by cherry red wool curtains and green horsehair seats. Handmade red wool tassels trim the new window hangings. This room was recently painted a much brighter high-gloss green, so the finished effect is somewhat startling.

In the Downstairs Bedroom, the faded bed hangings have been replaced with the same red toile, a document pattern that is part of the Brunschwig & Fils Mount Vernon collection. A sage green carpet with muted florals has been replaced with a stronger pattern in documented reds and blues by Family Heirloom Weavers of Pennsylvania.

By the end of the year, the West Parlor and the upstairs Lafayette Bedroom will also be sporting a brighter look. "We think of 18th century America as living in a dull, bland environment," said Carol Borchert, Mount Vernon's curator, "but in the 21st century we have scientific methods to help us better understand the brilliant colors they lived with."

Mount Vernon's attendance plummeted after Sept. 11, although the mansion did have more than 1 million visitors last year. Though this spring's student attendance is still down from last year, curators are hoping the new bolder look will draw more visitors.

"Mount Vernon continues to change and evolve as we learn more," Ayres said. "So if people say, 'Oh, I've already been there,' they should reconsider."

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