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Winner of the 2018 Henry-Russell Hitchcock Award from the Victorian Society in America
Winterthur Portfolio 59, no. 1 (Spring 2018)
The Journal of American History (December 2017)
Journal of Southern History 83, no. 4 (November 2017)
The Public Historian, vol. 39, no. 4 (November 2017)
This research was supported by the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Mellon Foundation, the University of Virginia, and the University of South Carolina.
First in the homes of his countrymen: Mount Vernon in the American Imagination
published by University of Virginia Press, winter 2016
ISBN: 0813939259; 978-0813939254
Over the past two hundred years, Americans have reproduced George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation house more often, and in a greater variety of media, than any of their country’s other historic buildings. First in the Homes of His Countrymen: George Washington's Mount Vernon in the American Imagination. chronicles America’s obsession with the first president’s iconic home through advertising, prints, paintings, popular literature, and the full-scale replication of its architecture.
Even before Washington’s death in 1799, his house was an important symbol for the new nation. His countrymen used it to idealize the past as well as to evoke contemporary - and sometimes divisive - political and social ideals. In the wake of the mid-nineteenth century’s revival craze, Mount Vernon became an obvious choice for architects and patrons looking to reference the past through buildings in residential neighborhoods, at world’s fairs, and along the commercial strip. The singularity of the building’s trademark piazza and its connection to Washington made it immediately recognizable and easy to replicate.
As a myriad of Americans imitated the building’s architecture, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association carefully interpreted and preserved its fabric. Purchasing the house in 1859 amid intense scrutiny, the organization safeguarded Washington’s home and ensured its accessibility as the nation’s leading historic house museum. Tension between popular images of Mount Vernon and the organization’s "official" narrative for the house over the past 150 years demonstrates the close and ever-shifting relationship between historic preservation and popular architecture. In existence for roughly as long as the United States itself, Mount Vernon’s image has remained strikingly relevant to many competing conceptions of our country’s historical and architectural identity.