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Countrymen, get reacquainted

George Washington the man, the myths and even the teeth make up the new Mount Vernon experience.

October 22, 2006|Stanley Meisler | Special to The Times

Mount Vernon, Va. — THE private organization that runs Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, will soon open an opulent and dramatic visitors complex that will try to fill a need spawned by the growing ignorance of Americans about their own history.

There was a time when most visitors came to the 18th century estate and lovely grounds in northern Virginia already full of facts and insights into the life and times of the first president of the United States. But this is no longer so -- a lack of knowledge that first attracted notice in the 1990s.

"We realized then that the people coming through our gates," says James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, "were different than they were 30 or 40 years earlier. They didn't know very much about George Washington."

Of course, they still flocked to Mount Vernon, little more than 10 miles from Washington, D.C., because they knew Washington was the first president and had commanded the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. But they knew little else.

In a survey in the 1990s, for example, seniors at 50 leading American colleges and universities were asked to name the victorious American general at the battle of Yorktown. Rees says only 34% correctly named Washington; 37% came up with Ulysses S. Grant.

Rees said he and his staff studied high school textbooks of the 1990s and found they contained about one-tenth as much information about Washington as textbooks had 30 or 40 years earlier.

So a decision was made to launch a $100- million campaign to build an orientation and educational center for the million visitors who come to Mount Vernon every year. No historical residence in the United States receives more visitors, not even Thomas Jefferson's Monticello or Elvis Presley's Graceland. Rees hoped that the new center might even serve as Washington's presidential library, like the John F. Kennedy library in Boston.

The result, which will open to the public Friday, is less presidential library than a striking melange of history, art, civics, forensic anthropology, computer science, educational television, Hollywood, Madame Tussauds, and a little bit of hokum -- such as ersatz snow falling on an audience as it watches a film about the revolutionary soldiers crossing the Delaware River in winter.

Washington's home is owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, a nonprofit organization founded in 1853 that guards its independence so fiercely that it accepts no federal, state or local government funding. The largest donors for the new facilities were the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation of Las Vegas, named for the media entrepreneur, and their gifts are recognized in the names of the two new buildings -- the Ford Orientation Center and the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center.

To keep the new buildings from jarring the antique tranquillity of Washington's home and grounds, the designer, GWWO architects of Baltimore, has placed 65% of the complex's 66,700 square feet below ground.

In the past, after purchasing tickets ($6 to $13), visitors would head straight for the Washington home and wait their turn to enter. Now they will first enter the orientation center, which has two movie theaters with a total of 450 seats. The theaters will screen an 18-minute film, produced by Greystone Films of North Hollywood, that will mainly depict Washington as a warrior in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution. Directed by Dutch-born Kees Van Oostrum, who has worked extensively in American television for 20 years, the movie stars the French-born and French-trained actor Sebastian Roche as George Washington.

A tour of the grand house will follow the orientation. The mansion was inherited by Washington in 1761 and expanded over the years, most notably by a two-story piazza or porch in front and a cupola on top. Except for his years as commander of the revolutionary army and as president, he lived in Mount Vernon until his death in 1799. Using slave labor, he oversaw an 8,000-acre plantation from the house. When he died, 316 slaves lived on the Mount Vernon estate. His will provided freedom for 124, but the rest belonged legally to his widow.

Mount Vernon has little of the inventiveness, architectural flair and French fashion that mark a famous rival -- Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, in central Virginia. Instead, Mount Vernon is stately, sturdy, rich and proper. But it is infused with authenticity. It looks exactly like it must have looked at the time of Washington's death. Visitors cannot help sensing that Washington walked and worked and slept in these very rooms. The experience can be affecting, no matter how little the visitor knows about the life of Washington.

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Face to face with a likeness

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