Recently I experienced what I call a magical moment at a history site. I haven’t been to any historic sites since March, thanks to the pandemic. I was happy to hear that Mount Vernon, George Washington’s restored home near Alexandria, is open again. So, a friend and I braved the blazing heat of a Virginia August. I live near the estate and have visited many times both professionally and personally. Normally, I avoid the site like the plague in summer because it’s jam-packed with tourists from all over the world. This year, the travelers are staying home. Seeking a new walking location, my friend and I decided that a walk at Mount Vernon would be a nice change of scenery. I’m writing a middle grade book on the battle of Yorktown and, no surprise, Washington is a main character. So, I saw an opportunity to soak in the environment of one of my characters.
Sadly, the place was very empty. We strolled by the mansion, commenting on the cream color. “I thought it was white,” my friend said. “I did, too,” I said. Two questioning historians wanted some answers. (and here they are) We ambled past the outbuildings, by the lazy sheep, down to the wharf. Even the wide Potomac River was relatively empty of watercraft for a summer day. I had been on that very water that same morning, in a kayak. It was my first time seeing Mount Vernon from the water. I sat there awed by the commanding location of the red and white house. This is the view anyone arriving by water would see, including the British warship that arrived in spring, 1781, threatening to burn the house. Washington’s cousin was serving as caretaker and the General had warned him not to negotiate with the British. He did anyway, causing great embarrassment to Washington, and a letter of rebuke from Lafayette to Washington. The British ship left with 17 enslaved people from the property who were escaping bondage.
We moved through the Pioneer Farm. I checked to see if the staff had planted cotton. Yes, the plants were in bloom and very healthy. I showed my friend the 16-sided threshing barn. We looked at the slave cabin and tried to imagine how a large family could live in the space. We stopped by the Washingtons’ tomb (noting that the inscription above the entrance says General, not President. Interesting). We next paid respects at the slave memorial, inscribed with the words Faith, Hope, Love, and the burial ground. We noted how terminology has changed from an original marker placed in 1929 — “faithful colored servants?”
It was nearing closing time, but as we headed away from the mansion, I suggested we sit for a minute on the piazza. Most people who visit Mount Vernon never forget the sweeping view the spot offers. The piazza, a two-story porch, was designed by Washington and is the one of the house’s most striking architectural features. In the 18th century, it was rare to see such a grand facade on a private residence. The piazza provided additional living space during warmer weather and most likely the Washingtons ate many meals overlooking the spectacular river view, enjoying breezes off the water. Thankfully, the viewshed has been preserved (not without a few battles over the years). As we settled into the highback chairs, we suddenly realized that not another person was visible. We had the view to ourselves. My imagination was free to picture the Washington children playing on the lawn, French general Rochambeau admiring the view, or the Marquis de Lafayette laughing with Washington. Might George Washington suddenly come through the doors from the house and greet us? Had we slipped through a time portal?
I visit historic sites to learn something new, but I also go to experience the power of place. With imagination, preserved places can transport you back in time. Mount Vernon was not the site of a major historical event. It was a private refuge for a very public and influential person who wrestled with weighty decisions. Today, it provides insight into his character, his passions, his soul. It also helps us to see that, like every human on Earth, he was a complex person.
The heat was finally getting to me. Much as we didn’t want to leave, the air conditioning was luring me away. As we walked to the exit, I recalled another magical moment at Mount Vernon a few years back — a climb to the cupola to look out on a snowy landscape. That day, two history colleagues and I had enjoyed a private walking tour of the property in the falling snow. It was another moment that remains etched in my memory. The power of place, indeed.
[Don’t forget to support your local history places during these difficult times. They are struggling. They help root our communities and give them meaning.]