Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mount Vernon Part 2


A handed down story at CW quotes a derisive guest as saying "You visit Colonial Williamsburg like you visit Disneyworld...once you're dragged by your parents, then you drag your kids, and then when you get older you can afford to stay in the hotels and eat at the nice restaurants." That sounds about right.

I have been to Mount Vernon before. When I was about ten, I think...this was in conjunction with a family visit to Washington DC, and Bush I was in office, so that would date it to about 1991. My clearest memories include standing in the HUGEOUS dining room, marvelling at the blue-green paint job, hearing about how Washington employed sheep to keep his lawn mowed, and standing in front of the Presidential tomb going "wait, he's in THERE?"

Well, I found out recently from an ex-employee that Washington never actually used sheep to mow the lawn--they used scythes and rollers to flatten the grass. But I wanted to see if other memories of Mount Vernon added up in my memory, so Jeff and I took a day trip up there yesterday. I fully expected the Mansion to be smaller that I remembered, which it was, but I was not prepared for the Ford Orientatio Center and the shiny new Donald W Reynolds Educational Center and Museum. Oh sure, I'd heard that such places had opened in 2006, and squeee'd expectantly up the drive, looking forward to seeing the waxworks of G-Dubs and original artefacts, but the actual centers were loud and shiny and a little, well, jarring.


Not lawn mowers.

We bought our tickets ($15), and headed into the Ford Orientation Center. Bronze statues of George, Martha and their kids greeted us. There was a 1/22nd replica of the Mansion, complete with lights, that opened and closed within a Plexiglass case, letting you peek in rooms. Then we were shuffled into a theater to view a movie about Washington's early career...but not before getting a five minute overview of the amenities available by none other than Pat Sajak. The Mansion! The Pioneer Farm! The Walking Trail! The Shops! The Boat Tour! The Hotel! The Civil War Tour! Children's Activities! The following movie was acted pretty well, but it didn't tell a coherent story. Washington was a hero when he was younger. Boom! He's retired to Mount Vernon. Whaa? Nothing about him being President? Oh, well, okay...I didn't need much background on our First President (did you know he started the French and Indian War? True!), but I kinda felt for the people around me.

Doors opposite the ones we had entered opened...no going back to see the statues some more...and we were walking up a brick path towards the mansion. Yup. Smaller than I remembered. But I didn't remember all the outbuildings. We made our way up to the Mansion via the South Lane, where the Greenhouse and slave quarters were, poking our heads in the door. As did everyone else who was there. That was when I noticed the hordes of people. For real noticed them. Especially the kids, who were running from exhibit to exhibit...while I was trying to read "stationary interpretative signage" they would dart in front of me, frown because the sign was not a stop on their "History Hunt" maps, and then dart off again, bawling that they needed to "find number 4." I am all for taking kids to historic sites--probably would not be going to them now if I hadn't been taken when I was younger--but these families seemed to be there because it was a line on their Washington DC tourbooks, not because they had any true history geek or squee factor. Personally, I don't know how I would prepare an eight year old for the seriousness and gravity of visiting the Home of the Father of Our Country, so hats off to this family, who not only clearly absorbed Mt. Vernon and the outlying farms, but documented it in a series of photos--MUCH better photos that I could have taken yesterday.

Another reason we had gone to Mount Vernon was so I could do some research for a play I'm writing about Washington's slave, Billy Lee. I wanted to walk around the grounds and get a spatial feel for the place, to see how far it was from the house to the slave quarters, etc, what kind of life house slaves would lead. I was prepared for not a lot of information about Washington's slaves--it is after all, Washington's house, and the Mount Vernon folks are in the business of continuing the deification process--but I was disappointed with how little info there was. The displays in the slave quarters were static, and there was no mention at all in the house tour.

Our house tour started at 2:45..well, that's the time we could get in line. Stood in line for about ten minutes before we were directed into the servant's house. Then we went into the main house, into the dining room...just as green as I remembered. Gorgeous color. The man in there talked for five minutes at random about the paintings, the original marble fireplace, one historical moment (when Washington found out he was president "right HERE!"), and then shoehorned us out the opposite door. As we were being herded out, I asked the guide if the paintings had been in the house when the Ladies Association had bought it. "No," he shouted, going back to the door we had come in and letting in the new group "they were hunted down and repurchased later." We stood on the back porch, looking out at the Potomac. "The Ladies Association also bought the land across the river," I told Jeff, something I remembered from the last time I was here, "so the view is the same as when Washington lived here. Except for the motor boats, obviously." We admired the view and then shuffled forward into the foyer. Four rooms led off of this hallway. Jeff and I admired the faux painting in the hallway, the key to the Bastille in it's glass case, I asked another question, glanced in the four rooms, and then went upstairs...where the next guide was already finishing her spiel about the bedrooms. More faux painting (Unlike other Virginians, Washington believed in paying for what he owned, so there is a LOT of faux finishing in this house, instead of actual marble, wood, etc.), and another quick glance at the bedrooms, then we were in the hallway leading into the room where Washington died. I made the mistake of asking the guide stationed there where Billy Lee would have slept. ("Frank Lee?" "No, that was his brother. Billy--" "Oh, right. I don't know.") Looking briefly into Washington's room, we made our way downstairs and into his study. I remembered this room, with all the natural specimens and the fan chair. At this point, I had given up on questioning the docents, and settled for admiring the inset wall cabinets. Then we were outside. That was it. Twenty minutes, five guides, and I had three questions sort of answered and felt like I had been on a conveyor belt.

So, okay. The visitor count that day had to have been in the thousands. Good on Mount Vernon drumming up the numbers. I'm sure that others who went through were perfectly content with their tour...the average person can only stand listening to someone prattle on about antiques for so long, after all. But I have a higher tolerance for prattling, and a better grasp of the historicity of Mount Vernon, and I would have liked to have spent a little more time speaking more with people who have their boots on the ground so to speak.

We wandered through the kitchen in a desultory way, then down past the stables and further down the path to Washington's tomb. More kids. The tomb itself, like the house, was smaller than I remembered. I stood there, thinking about visiting this same grave twenty years ago, when a little girl marched up to the gate in front of me, announced to seemingly no one "That is a very small room!" and then turned on her heel and marched off. I prevented myself from saying "Honey, that's all the space any of us will need in the end." We walked up to the slave memorial. It was much quieter and more sacred there. More trees, birds...Billy Lee is buried there somewhere. I wished I would have brought flowers. It's the least I could do since I'm quietly dramatizing and dismantling his life. But we just looked and walked on.

Down a brick path to where the boat launch was. Friends, if I'd have known there was a boat tour, we would have been on it. That was new. As it was, we got there too late to make the last tour. By this point, after the heat of the day and the oppression of hundreds of our fellow humans, we were not really in any shape to make the haul back up to the Mansion. We opted instead for a bus shuttle back to the Museum.


Not actually Washington, but an extremely lifelike waxwork! Who sees what you're doing there!

I was ready for the Museum. Part Smithsonian, part multi-visual, mega remix experience, I was looking forward to seeing WASHINGTON! THE MAN! THE HERO! Reinterpreted by the best that museum designers had to offer. There were waxworks ("death's head buttons? on a working man's coat? really?), cartoons about his young life ("the cherry tree is a LIE!"), and reproductions of artifacts that we were invited to touch (yay!). And there were kids. Hordes of kids. Running around, shouting, touching things, setting off alarms. One girl was taking so many pictures I feared the flash would trigger a seizure. I finally said "hon, you're not supposed to take pictures in here." "Oh. How come?" "Because it will fade everything." This seemed to stop her until she figured out how to turn off the flash feature. Whatever. Another little girl had a meltdown at the Presidential Swearing In Exhibit, slapping the Bible and screaming "this is STUPID! STUPID!" and totally getting in my way of examining the Presidential Swearing In Suit. There was a shrine to Washington's dentures, as well as a video of how there were made. (one word: ow. Also: ew.) There was an excellent exhibit and retrospective video about the enslaved population at Mount Vernon, which I watched in full. But, by that point, the day was over. We were tired and huuungry. After a cursory turn through the giftshop (where I bought the Mansion guidebook, hoping to pick up on some details that weren't covered on our tour), we took off.

We had dinner at a local pub, picked up Kiz from daycare and headed back home. Being able to spend all day with Jeff was lovely, as was getting away from the house. And I did accomplish goal one--that of studying the layout of Mount Vernon, of visiting where it happened and starting to see the elephant from the enslaved people's point of view. But I didn't get much out of the house tour. I should have thought before we went--July is high season after all. I'd go back--I'd definitely recommend others to go--but go in the off season. That's what off-seasons are for, after all. And, if you really want to get up close and personal with some of Washington's dentures, check out the Royal Hospital in London...just watch for opening doors.

1 comment:

Jack Bunny said...

Very interesting. As a child I was led on a tour not unlike your first one - only it was just the building, no guide, no glitz, and we were among maybe 15 people milling around for the afternoon. I remember they were doing repairs on what appeared the original structure, and there was an obvious garbage can filled with (among other things) what I still believe was original sections of wood, now rotten. I broke off a small chunk, covered with white paint mixed with sand. I still have it