Leigh Giangreco is a freelance reporter based in D.C. Her work has appeared in DCist, Politico Magazine and The Washington Post.
Why did George Washington’s house leave the current president so unimpressed? Maybe because this practical-minded mansion was made to convey humility.
Last April, when President Donald Trump cast his gaze around Mount Vernon during a state visit with French President Emmanuel Macron, he had one big question about the Virginia mansion of the founding father: Why didn’t George Washington didn’t name the place after himself?
“You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you,” Trump said, according to a story in Politico this week.
That’s the unintentionally unforgettable line Trump left behind after a “truly bizarre” 2018 visit to Mount Vernon. Politico’s account of this VIP tour briefly brought the historic home back into the headlines. The story claims that Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, a former history professor, had a challenging time maintaining the attention of the 45th president. Trump knew little about Washington and found the rooms and staircases of the 18th-century home too small; the developer-in-chief’s main interest was in his predecessor’s personal wealth. From the Politico report:
Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.
Trump might not have appreciated it, but Washington’s mansion looks the part for a Colonial-era one-percenter, design-wise: The walls are painted in rich, jewel tones or plastered with fine wallpaper. The rooms are filled with imported textiles, marble mantles, and breathtaking Palladian windows. At 11,000 square feet, it’s also huge, by the standards of its time.
But there are no gold letters heralding the entrance to the general’s plantation. Instead, Mount Vernon stands as something of a monument to pragmatism.
Washington imagined Mount Vernon as a projection of himself, a man who wanted to be seen as learned, fashionable, and engaged with the world, says Lydia Mattice Brandt, an associate professor of art history at the University of South Carolina and author of First Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington’s Mount Vernon in the American Imagination.
At the same time, Washington was also conscious of a need to convey himself as a common man. He described his style as “neat and plain,” Brandt says. Both in policy (with his precedent-setting farewell address) and aesthetics (his choice to pose in a simple black coat for a Gilbert Stuart portrait), Washington was aware of the power in deferring power. “He wanted to communicate his humility and ability to step down,” she says. “He did not want Mount Vernon to look like a palace.”
The site has a complex and layered history, one that’s still very much a work in progress. Until 2007, the estate was missing its original distillery. By the end of 2018, archaeologists identified almost 80 graves of enslaved people on the property, unearthing more hidden narratives about the hundreds of men, women, and children who represented Mount Vernon’s primary residents. It was just February when historians discovered something new—the Washingtons owned the first documented sofa in Virginia.
The property is critical to understanding Washington’s character, and why his name is so omnipresent everywhere else in the United States, even if he neglected to slap it on his house. It’s the apotheosis of Washington as America’s Cincinnatus, the Roman soldier and statesman who ceded his power and returned to his farm after vanquishing the Aequians. Examining Washington’s construction and upkeep of his estate may also bring to mind the practical ethos of Romans like Marcus Agrippa, the general/builder credited with maintaining the city’s sewers and other public works.
Like Rome, Mount Vernon was not built in a day. Through a series of additions, Washington expanded his father’s small one-and-a-half story farmhouse into a 21-room mansion suitable for entertaining family and guests. “What [Mount Vernon] said about him was that he was a substantial person, an important person and that he’d made it,” says Mary Thompson, a research historian at Mount Vernon. “It said he was somebody who had arrived and that was important to him, but it was also a family home.”
Washington proved to be a cost-effective renovator: Though the building appears to be made of stone, the exterior is clad in carved pine boards covered in paint and sand. “That’s something that was done in Georgian architecture, both in England and America. It was fashionable to kind of fake it,” Brandt says. “We might say it’s like vinyl siding.”
Mount Vernon was also Washington’s workplace. After returning from the Revolutionary War, Washington endeavored to turn the property into a model American farm. He transplanted trees from other parts of the country, sought out the best varieties of crops to grow in Virginia, promoted the breeding of mules, and ran a successful distillery that became one of his most profitable business ventures at the estate, says Thompson. “He’s looking for practical solutions that are also beautiful and functional.”
Washington’s estate-making approach stands in contrast not only to the current president but to another founding father who fancied himself a yeoman farmer, Thomas Jefferson. As a Francophile, inventor, and architect, Jefferson’s house reflected his quixotic and extravagant nature.
Monticello saw two distinct constructions. In 1796, Jefferson stripped the building down to its bones and rebuilt the mansion to reflect the worldly tastes he acquired after his time in France. “The plan of Monticello is very sophisticated in a way that no buildings in 18th-century America and very few in 19th-century America were,” Brandt says. “That made it kind of posh and different in a way than Mount Vernon.”
Jefferson’s farming philosophy was similarly edgy, yielding both countless crop failures and scientific notes for future growers. He cultivated hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables from around the globe; if drought or disease didn’t kill the fruits of his labor, his guests might enjoy them as part of an exotic French dish. His geographic choices were visually stunning but impractical. Monticello’s perch atop a 1,200-foot hill he dubbed Montalto exposed the land to the elements and placed the mansion and crops far from a good water supply.
Monticello’s cloistered position high above Charlottesville was also good at keeping pedestrians at bay, which was something Washington avoided. His farmhouse sat on the bustling Potomac, not far from the city of Alexandria. So many visitors frequented the estate that in a 1787 letter to his mother, Washington compared his home to a “well resorted tavern, as scarcely any strangers who are going from north to south, or from south to north, do not spend a day or two at it.”
That accessibility democratized Mount Vernon: Today, its features are still reflected in countless American institutions, from banks to motels to funeral homes. “At the end of Washington’s lifetime, it was hands-down the most famous house in America,” Brandt says. “For many people it represented Washington’s humility, which is kind of interesting. On the one hand, it was an enormous house and he made it to be impressive. But it was interpreted even in his lifetime as not being as fancy as it could have been.”
Few are likely to have ever articulated such a sentiment about Trump’s eponymous real estate. But, as Thompson says, the function of Mount Vernon reflects something more fundamentally humble. “The whole time [George and Martha Washington] they’re in Mount Vernon, there are kids with them,” she says. “So I think that’s mostly what I see—a family home.”