The spring symposium of The Decorative Arts Trust brought a very fresh and revelatory view of the Washingtons, not just George and Martha but Samuel, Charles, and Lawrence, half brothers of the President. George was the only child of his father’s second wife with whom George had an uncomfortable relationship. His older step-brothers took a greater than normal part in George’s upbringing after his father died. This close relationship and the fact that George surveyed lands in what is now West Virginia, enhanced our Thursday Optional Tour planned by Ralph Harvard, to the homes of the President’s brothers in that area.
Matt Webster, architectural specialist from Drayton Hall near Charleston, SC, and a native of West Virginia, provided expert information to Trust members through the day. Harewood, built in 1760s by Samuel Washington, is still in the family. We were greeted by Walter Washington who graciously showed Trust members through the house and particularly the best room where Dolly Todd married James Madison in 1794. We paused for discussion about the Palladian elements of the room, the symmetry, the pilasters, the full entablature, and the single coat of paint probably applied in the 18th century. We traveled on to Happy Retreat, home of Charles Washington who was founder of Charles Town. Here we met Curt Mason, president of Friends of Happy Retreat, who is working to establish The Washington Family Legacy National Park. There were twelve Washington family homes built between 1750 and the early 1800s in the Jefferson County area. Four of the remaining eight are included in this effort: Happy Retreat c. 1780, Claymont Court c. 1820, Blakeley c. 1820, and the Bullskin Plantation c. 1750, known as Rock Hall, which was one of George’s first land purchases. If you would like to learn more you can contact Mr. Mason at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 304/724-7008. Harvard also took us to the beautifully and sympathetically restored country home of Kate and Jim Lehrer, Piedmont, built in the 18th century and full of original elements including woodwork and wallpapers. We ended the trip with a stop in Waterford, the early 18th-century Quaker village, fully contained on several small roads surrounded by open fields and forests. The residents of Waterford and the Waterford Foundation are to be commended for taking a keen and successful interest in maintaining the historic qualities of the village, houses, and surrounding area.
Drinks and refreshments were graciously served to Trust members by the owners of Hague-Hough House, an 18th-century stone and brick house meticulously restored (woodwork, original paint colors, document wallpapers, and fabrics) and furnished. A final fabulous treat!
That evening our Mount Vernon quest started with Jim Rees, Director of Mount Vernon, walking us through the history of the house and plantation and the work that has been achieved there since our last Mount Vernon symposium in 1987. Mount Vernon is the most visited historic site in America and many of these visitors are school students. Rees and the Ladies of Mount Vernon consider it a prime goal to teach the founding history of our country in order that democracy and our struggles for freedom are fully understood by each generation. The applause was long and hard.
Friday started early as Trust members traveled to Mount Vernon, eight miles down the memorial highway. Making our way through throngs of young students who had come to visit our first president’s home, we entered the auditorium in the visitors center. There Alan Greenberg, architect and author of George Washington, Architect and Architecture of Democracy, who came to this country in 1964 on a scholarship to Yale, said that as to landscaping Washington had no peer until Beatrix Farrand. He established the road on axis leading to the house, bush and flowering tree clumps, allees, modeled landscape as seen in Latrobe’s water colors. Further, he sees the two-foot-or-more rise around the Piazza of the mansion to be so subtle and beautiful that it is like a Brancusi sculpture. And, Greenberg states, Washington never introduced an ugly building to the estate.
Carol Borchert Cadou, the Robert H. Smith Senior Curator at Mount Vernon, share the following points about Washington. Mount Vernon was composed of over 8,000 acres, a huge piece of land. He had the family crest on glass and silver. He chose a 200-piece set of creamware after export was banned, thus setting an example of eschewing fancy ware. She described his camp ware, “under canvas”,—hung bedstead and trunks all bearing brass and copper nameplates. He created the Society of Cincinnati and lived in three executive residences during his two terms as president (Congress bought the first residence on Cherry Street in New York City). He wrote to Gouverneur Morris for porcelain and silver. And, he obtained the “noble simplicity” of whiteware for his dining table mirror. George Washington clearly understood and enjoyed the material accoutrements of his station.
As Dean Failey, Senior Vice President, Christie’s, noted that George Washington was meticulous in his record keeping and always concerned about his image. As a Virginian, England was the center of his life growing up and London dictated fashion. Failey feels that the large dining room at Mount Vernon is one of the most beautiful rooms of late 18th-century America. It was Washington’s creation with the help of window designs from Batty Langley.
After a book signing with Carol Cadou and Allen Greenberg, Trust members enjoyed lunch at the Mount Vernon Inn and had free range of the estate for the afternoon, enjoying the new Donald W. Reynolds Museum galleries with the Mount Vernon curatorial staff and the Donald W. Reynolds Education Center. The Museum displays lots of Washington items from silver to furniture. The Education Center is a very manageable area with interactive displays and several high-quality movies shown in small theaters, one has seats that quake at the cannon fire and real snow falls from the ceiling while Washington is at Valley Forge. It’s all thrilling and the school students visiting that day seemed to be happily experiencing this history.
After visiting the gardens with Dean Norton and learning about the trials of successful boxwood growing, many Trust members walked to the new round thrashing barn, getting a better understanding for the topography, the soil, and the flora of the plantation. At half past five in the evening, all reported to the mansion for drinks on the piazza while the president’s house was open for careful examination and thoughtful pondering. Most members made their way to the third floor, visiting bedrooms, including one that Martha used after Washington’s death. From there, via a fixed ladder, most members climbed to the cupola for vistas up and down the Potomac and across the plantation with a particularly wonderful view of the 18th-century axis road leading to the main house. As twilight approached, we returned to the Mount Vernon Inn for dinner with lots of toasts to presidents— to George Washington and to our own Jonathan Fairbanks.
Saturday focused on historic Alexandria. Barbara Magid, Archaeologist for the City of Alexandria, reviewed the history of the town, which was established in 1749 with George Washington doing the surveying. In 1801, Alexandria became part of Washington, DC, but federal control stymied trade and it returned to Virginia. In the 19th century, Alexandria was known for its big sugar refineries. But Barbara’s main interest was the early potters and their work sites. Henry Piercy, whose family came to Philadelphia in 1769, worked with his older brother Christian producing dishes at Valley Forge for the soldiers. In 1794 he was in Alexandria making pottery that looked a lot like Philadelphia redware. Piercy pottery samples also show a dark brown color while unglazed on the outside. Waster dumps in Alexandria have produced cobalt stoneware sherds of 100 distinct vessels. Some of the potters’ names were John Swan (1813–1825), Hugh Smith & Co. (1825–1841), and B.C. Milburn. The most common cobalt motifs are flowers with petals and stems. To take a look at these stoneware patterns, go to www.oha.alexandria.gov/archaeology and click on “collections and exhibits.”
The person for whom the term “scholar/dealer” was coined, Sumpter Priddy, was our next speaker. Living in Alexandria over his wonderful shop, Sumpter has for years been intensely researching the furniture of the Potomac River area. He noted that one half of Pennsylvania’s watersheds drains into the Susquehanna River, which drains into the Potomac and brings goods, style, and design.
With the building of the Capitol in 1790, Jefferson had a huge impact. This monumental building brought artisans from Europe to work on stone cutting. At least one of Canova’s apprentices was here. The burning of the White House in 1814 starts the second phase of building and keeps the center of work in DC until about 1820. So craftsmen stayed in the area, with Latrobe siphoning off a few to work on his other projects. These craftsmen/carvers also worked for individuals in Alexandria as can be seen by the early carved doorways still extant. Sumpter continues to research the early furniture of Alexandria and mentions the Scottish inspired inlay of flowers seen on a number of chairs.
Christina Keyser, Assistant Curator at Mount Vernon and a former Dewey Lee Curtis Scholar, spoke on Washington’s table and teawares. For 40 years the tableware of Daniel Park Custis, Martha’s first husband, and George Washington’s were co-mingled and used at Mount Vernon. Early in their marriage, the Washingtons ordered glass salvers and sweetmeats, jelly and syllabub glasses. The first American ship to trade freely with China, the Empress of China in 1784, brought back the set of Society of Cincinnati china for Washington. However, in 1790, they ordered a 309-piece set of French porcelain from Sèvres.
After lunch, Trust members enjoyed a lovely walking tour of Historic Alexandria and its private collections, a charming and compact old town. Hardy members of the Trust (almost all!) ended up at Sumpter Priddy’s shop for drinks.
On Sunday morning, Caroline Riley, curator of Gunston Hall and a fantastic speaker, spoke to us of George Mason, friend and neighbor of Washington. Mason’s home, Gunston Hall, was built between 1755 and 1759 when colonists still defined themselves as English. George Mason furnished the Hall much like most well-to-do colonists with imported wares for the public rooms and local wares for the private ones. Gunston Hall has nine documented Mason pieces: A writing table, black walnut from Eastern Virginia;
a gaming table, mahogany, with oak secondary, from England and, possibly by the same maker, English chairs, c. 1760s. There are local chairs, 1740–1760, from Eastern Virginia, black walnut with pine secondary. These were moved from his former house and used in the private little parlor at Gunston Hall.
Harlow Giles Unger, the esteemed final lecturer, is author of The Unexpected George Washington, His Private Life and Lafayette. Without slides or visual aids, Unger brought the personality and strength of Washington to his audience. Unger’s eloquent presentation of George Washington, his business brilliance, and his paternal relationships with Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton, gave Trust members a new and intense understanding of Washington, providing a perfect culmination of this extraordinary symposium.
The Sunday Optional Tour that afternoon took some Trust members to Gunston Hall where Caroline Riley greeted us and introduced the Director, David Reese, who, using a large map in the visitors center, explained the topography of Gunston Hall, which was much like that of Mount Vernon and other plantations along the Potomac, that is, a great deal of water frontage and a fenced-off land side. As we walked out to the point beyond Mason’s “regular garden,” we could see over land that once belonged to Mason, that his vista was wide like Washington’s at Mount Vernon with views up and down the river.
Afterwards we spent time in the house with Caroline, concentrating especially on the Chinese room and the dining room. Caroline explained on-going research, which is what the lecture honorarium she received from the Trust will support.
Soon we were off to a private house in the vicinity, which was moved from downtown Alexandria where it had been the townhouse of Nelly Custis. A one story house with a wide center hall, it was perfectly sited to take in the view of the wide Potomac.
After a glass of wine and a bite of cheese kindly offered by our hosts, we were off to our last stop, the reconstructed distillery and grist mill of George Washington. With an excellent guide, Trust members were shown the workings of the grist mill where Washington gladly ground corn for a fee, but insisted on buying the wheat that was brought in, knowing it to be the up and coming grain. A stream of water was diverted to both mill and distillery from a larger tidal creek to powerlessly bring goods into the mill area and take ground and liquefied product out to Alexandria’s port for sale and further shipping. Therestored distillery was also working order and Trust members learned that Washington was the largest seller of corn liquor in the new America. Back at our motor coach as we headed for home, Donna and Pete Paone poured glasses of sherry to warm the hearts of Trust members at the end of an unforgettable Washington experience.
Our great thanks go to Jim Rees, Director of Mount Vernon, sponsors Bruce Perkins and Randy Schrimsher, Dr. Morgan D. Delany, President of Historic Alexandria, and Ralph Harvard, Thursday Optional Tour organizer, for the extraordinary welcome and access they all made possible for this symposium.