Intro: Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast — the show that brings you people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons and today we join NCPTT’s Josh Springer as he speaks with Dennis Pogue at Mount Vernon about the restoration and grounds at Mount Vernon.
Springer: Mount Vernon has been restored over the years, but this does not just include the mansion. How has the restoration dealt with all the other buildings and the landscape in addition to the mansion?
Pogue: Mount Vernon was one of the first historic preservation programs in the country. The Mt. Vernon Ladies Association acquired it from the Washingtons in 1858, so it has been over 150 years that the project has been ongoing. Early on there wasn’t much in the way of models to guide how they were going to do this. They were operating under the belief that it should be preserved as Washington knew the property, and that was kind of all there was. There were a lot of people that actually advised early on that the only important thing here was the mansion and the tomb where Washington’s body was kept and that all the other outbuildings, frankly, just weren’t that important and that maybe it would be better to just not deal with them. And thankfully the ladies early on disregarded that advice and decided that they were going to look at not just the mansion, but all the other buildings and gardens and grounds. And fortunate for us, because we now have the largest collection of surviving 18th century plantation outbuildings anywhere in the country, and so it is due to their foresight that those buildings are still here.
Springer: Like most historic houses, Mount Vernon has original furnishings in a space that was not designed to be a museum. How do you balance the needs of the house verses to those of the collections?
Pogue: That really is one of the major issues facing folks who work in historic house museums, that the house itself is of course the biggest artifact that we have, and you can argue the most important one. Over the years, the ladies have been very assiduous in bringing back original objects to the house because the goal here is to make the place look as much as it did when George Washington lived here. So that means that you’re bringing 200-year-old priceless objects back into an historic building that was, of course, never intended to be a museum. So that’s a real balancing act. And one of the main things is the climate in the building and certainly museum objects — museum curators want them to be in a stable an environment as they possibly can be, and historic houses without insulation and all the other things that modern houses have, it’s really difficult to accomplish that. So we did install an HVAC system, a climate system about 12 or 13 years ago now, and it was a real challenge to get it into the building without doing lots of damage to the structure, and then most importantly the goal behind that is very limited. Instead of trying to achieve the very narrow climatic conditions that a museum curator would like, but which could have problems for the building, we have a system that reduces the range of variation, makes the climate better for the objects, but is something we think is still conducive for the health of the building.
Springer: Dennis, what is the greatest challenge that you face at Mount Vernon in attempting to keep the mansion and grounds restored, but also beautiful for the public?
Pogue: Well it is the public. And on the one hand we’re obviously very fortunate in that last year we had over a million visitors come to Mount Vernon, and I’m sure we’ll have that number again this year. We’re are the most visited historic site in the country. Of course that is wonderful and we love that so many people come and see the place, learn the story and experience all of this, but a million people walking through a 250-year-old building that wasn’t meant for that kind of traffic, obviously is a challenge. So there have been structural things that we have had to do to the mansion to bolster the framing of the buildings. The staircase, for example, we’ve done work on that numerous times over the years because that is where everybody walks. So you have two million feet walking up and down that staircase every year. And then because they are in there, they touch things and if one person touches a wall, that’s not a big deal, but after a million people have touched it, then the paint is going to be gone. And so every year, it is the same places over and over again that we have to come back in and do that kind of basic maintenance. In addition, we are open 365 days a year and heavily visited. So it is not as if we have lots of down time where we can work on the building. When we do projects, we do them when people are actually in the building. So that’s a real challenge as well.
Springer: As time goes by, new technologies develop and provide restoration options that have not been previously available. Are there any examples of new technologies that have recently been developed that have helped save or preserve artifacts at Mount Vernon?
Pogue: You know, I think that the preservation field is just a track record of growing sophistication in techniques, but also perspectives, the kinds of things that we are interested in doing and learning about and telling people is different than what it was 100 years ago. And fortunately, we do have new advancements that are being made all the time. Possibly the best example at Mount Vernon is modern paint study, and, back 30 years ago now, Mount Vernon, the association was one of the first sites to embark on a systematic analysis on all the painted surfaces inside the mansion, the goal was, again, to show the mansion as it was when Washington was here, and so that extends to the paint colors. And some of these rooms had been painted 25 or 30 times between the years that George Washington had been here and the paint colors had changed dramatically following the fashions of the day. So the goal was to find out what was the color of the paint in 1799 and then if we could find that to replicate it as closely as we possibly could. So all the paint colors throughout the mansion now are based on that initial survey that was done in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, and then more recently in my time here over the last 10 years or so, we have had the opportunity to reinvestigate some of those areas and of course, techniques have continued to evolve and improve, and so we have been able to actually make some changes to the colors that we think are even more accurate than when they were done 30 years ago.
So that is one example, but there are a number. Dendrochronology, tree ring dating, we have actually done Dendrochronology at a number of the buildings at Mount Vernon where we had questions about when they were actually built. And that we have been very fortunate, the evidence has been very good, so we have been able to more tightly date a number of these buildings. Photogrammetry, of course, laser technology, all those things are beginning to weigh in, and they are all particularly helpful in recording things. So now we can actually record the conditions much more accurately now that we have these new techniques. So a variety of ways, and it’s really changed during my career, really made some major strides forward.
Springer: I have noticed that Mount Vernon has a very active archeology program. What is the role of archeology in the restoration of Mount Vernon?
Pogue: Well we do, and in fact, I am a trained archeologist. When I came here 22 years ago, it was to run their archeology program. And then a number of years back, I was put in charge of all the historic buildings and the preservation of the entire site. But archeology has a very important role here, and on the one hand its research, its learning more about the estate. We have studied a number of sites here, black smith shop, dung repository, slave quarter, a whole variety of 18th century buildings that no longer survive, and have found those sites and studied them and based on the archeology primarily, we’ve actually been able to reconstruct several of those buildings. So we have been able to bring them back as part of the landscape, as part of what people see here. And the other side of it is cultural resource management, which is that Mount Vernon is a 424-acre site. The 60-acre core of it is the historic area, but then in the outlying areas we have restaurants and facilities and parking lots to support a million visitors a year, and so we do archeology in advance of any ground-disturbing project anywhere on the estate to make sure that nothing is being disturbed as part of that work. So it’s really two sides: It’s pure research on the one side, aimed at learning more about the plantation to help us interpret it. And then on the other side it is just doing due diligence to ensure that we don’t disturb things that are important because of the archeology.
Springer: Well thank you Dennis for talking with me today. I’ve learned quite a bit.
Pogue: Well thank you Josh, it was a pleasure.
Outro: That was Josh Springer with Dennis Pogue. If you’d like to learn more about the restoration and grounds of Mount Vernon, visit our podcast shownotes at the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training website. That’s ncptt.nps.gov. Until next time, goodbye everybody.
Teaser photo of Mt. Vernon by Kevin H. on Flickr