A Mount Vernon Democracy: The Popularized Image of George Washington’s Home

TOPICS: Historiography, Interview, Mount Vernon

By Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
December 10, 2016

More than just a man, George Washington is a symbol of our revolutionary spirit and democratic principles. Lydia Brandt, architectural historian and professor at the University of South Carolina, studies Mount Vernon, his home, to explore whether it holds similarly iconic status. In her new book, titled First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination, Brandt surveys Mount Vernon’s memory in the American imagination. Recently, she sat down with us to reflect on the results of her investigation.

Brandt’s interest in the subject was sparked when she began to notice replications of Mount Vernon. Soon after, friends affirmed her hunch, by finding Mount Vernon elsewhere: “People used to send me photos and postcards of buildings that looked like Mount Vernon.” But it was not until she began tracking all the various examples that she saw a pattern. The house had become a revered symbol, much like George Washington.

Image courtesy of the author.

Brandt argues that “this is because the house can influence people.” Even before Mount Vernon became a museum, individuals would leave their visit with items from the home, hoping that those mementos would inspire them, much as they would have been inspired by meeting George Washington. “Mount Vernon has grown to become more than a house; it is a shrine,” Brandt concludes. “The abstraction of Mount Vernon for new building types is evocative of how relevant Mount Vernon is after George Washington’s death.”

One of the examples Brandt shares to illustrate this point is the emergence of the funeral home, which became a central part of the American funeral industry in the mid-twentieth century. Investors sought to cultivate a market for their services by using these new structures to evoke notions of hospitality, tradition, and respect. A simple choice was to use architecture already known for those very ideals: that of Mount Vernon. Such familiar and honored architecture would reassure people confronted with decisions about death, embalming, and memorializing.

Brandt adds that a similar architectural choice occurred with motels, another service that emerged during the twentieth century. Seeking to build trust with the American public, hotel designers chose recognizable building styles to instill in travelers notions of hospitality, security, comfort, and ultimately trustworthiness. Brandt found that Mount Vernon—along with the Alamo—was a common choice of model.

How did versions of Mount Vernon become so widespread? Brandt believes this is partly because it was photographed so early and so frequently in its existence as a museum. She notes that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association used the new technology as early as possible, for it allowed them to positively control the image of the museum. And so, as the first museum, as the home of the first president, and as one of the most heavily photographed items in early photographic history, Mount Vernon’s image proliferated.

From there, the image of Mount Vernon began to take on new forms, most notably as the three-dimensional models that soon became regular features at world fairs. By the 1930s, architectural designs of Mount Vernon for modular and pre-fabricated homes appeared in home catalogues, available to any American to purchase for construction. Brandt concludes that this was when the image of Mount Vernon had become fully democratized.

When asked which version of Mount Vernon she enjoyed visiting most, Brandt replied she wished she could have visited one of the world fair replications. But as most of them are not extant, she finally settled on the replica of Mount Vernon at the Montevallo American Village. Located just outside of Birmingham, Alabama, this village of replicas is organized around Mount Vernon so that Alabama students can come and learn about American history through performances, all in view of these famous buildings. Brandt was particularly struck by this example because when visiting, she was one of the many audience members invited to participate in a performance of a protest against the Stamp Act. She believes that this reimagining of Mount Vernon is the next best thing to experiencing the world fair performances and replicas of George Washington’s home.

First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination was published by the University of Virginia Press in December 2016.