Monday, July 6, 2015

A Trek To Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon is one of those All-American destinations every third grader learns in U.S. history class. How better to get acquainted with the first president than to gain awareness of his home life?

At age eight in Edmond, Okla., I learned about Mount Vernon from Mrs. Dee Ray at Will Rogers Elementary School.

Our assignment related to the iconic home: draw a sketch of it. My brain and pencil-filled hand honed in on illustrating the rooftop and weather vane from a photo of the house on a projection screen.

Now 33 years older, I finally viewed that peace dove in person on a recent Sunday afternoon near Alexandria, Va. Whether you're heading to D.C. on business or pleasure, the trek 30 minutes south of Reagan National Airport is well worth the drive.

Even the most skilled tourist needs at least a half-day to see highlights at Mount Vernon. I was there five hours and could have used at least two more.

Another tip for planning: Don your walking shoes as everything on property is on foot, with a 10-15 minute walk between key estate destinations.

Parking is free but the nearest lot was about a half-mile hike (after a bit of a wait to for a space on a busy weekend afternoon).

With thanks to the Mount Vernon P.R. team for a comp ticket, my first stop on site was actually a hike to the riverside wharf on the Potomac, where daily cruises embark on a one-hour sightseeing excursion up stream.

I enjoyed the relaxing float past the mansion and a peek at a nearby fort -- kids on board seemed to love the seagulls who escort the watercraft for a scrap of popcorn. Tickets for the water taxi are $10 and may be purchased on board.

Back on terra firma, a quiet brick path through the woods leads visitors to the Washington family crypt (a.k.a. 'new tomb') where anyone may line up to pay their respects. After tuning in to an estate guide's one-minute spiel about the memorial, I forged onward toward the mansion and its lush bowling green lawn.

Before describing the estate in more detail, a moment to note here that an audio guide to Mount Vernon is available for a modest fee ($6). I opted instead to use the new (and free) Mount Vernon App, which was incredibly helpful ... when a signal was available.

Since the estate is, after all, sort of out in the country, that treasured mobile signal was sporadic at best. Users will be best served by downloading the app before their visit (my bad) and then leveraging the virtue of patience.

App in hand, I checked out the mansion (well worth the 20 minute wait for timed entry), smokehouse, greenhouse/staff quarters, kitchen and gardens, requiring nearly two hours to really study the wealth of details provided at each stop (there are many more stops and select tours I opted to skip). Inside the home, guests peek at period furniture, George's sleeping room and death bed. In the entryway where his staff received visitors, check out the memento the president himself fastened to the wall more than 200 years ago.

Many folks made time to sit on one of the hardwood chairs lined up facing the Potomac to the east, and I enjoyed the time to rest my legs there and snap a few photos.

Back on my feet, the next stop was the Mount Vernon Museum. What a treat! Wonderful art awaits, as do numerous artifacts from Washington's personal collection.

I loved viewing numerous portraits and busts of George, many of which inspired postage stamps or U.S. currency designs.

The original peace weather vane (see photo above), Martha's jewelry, one of the general's swords, personal and official correspondence, and his famous hippo and human bone dentures are just a few of the hundreds of items for visitor inspection.

A scale model of the home put into perspective many areas I'd need another afternoon and return visit to experience.

The Mount Vernon App features an abundance of detail for each museum item, and docents on site proved fluent in Washington history for even the most obscure questions from know-it-all tourists.

One of the more delightful surprises of the visit came into view during my search for a public restroom. Inside the visitor's center, food court and gift shop building, some of the halls are decorated with enlarged photographs of famous Mount Vernon visitors.

I loved spotting images of the Roosevelts, Kennedys, Reagans, Carters and other presidential families, and several world leaders also seemed to enjoy their visit to the property, for which at least one Zeppelin flyover took place and for which Henry Ford donated a specially-designed vehicle for use at the estate.

A note about the gift shop, among countless treasures for every budget, one unusual surprise: Hand-painted illustrations of several D.C. landmarks filled a small shelf, and it was interesting to learn these delicate pieces of folk art ($35 each) were crafted by a Russian artist in St. Petersburg.

Visiting Mount Vernon and nearby D.C. destinations made me long for a future Washington Olympic bid. I can just picture the archery competition on the bowling green, or sailing on the Potomac down the hill from the estate. I also became curious how many and which Olympic athletes and officials visited Washington's home over the years.

I highly recommend a visit to Mount Vernon for the U.S. history buff or student of any age.

Photos by Nicholas Wolaver or provided by Mount Vernon

1 comment:

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