Mount Vernon gets $38 million gift to build a research library

A PLACE FOR SCHOLARS: James C. Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director, shows an architectural rendering of the facility.
A PLACE FOR SCHOLARS: James C. Rees, Mount Vernon's executive director, shows an architectural rendering of the facility. (Ann Heisenfelt/associated Press)
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By Jacqueline Trescott
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mount Vernon has a thorny problem: Not enough about George Washington is being taught in schools and many students know just bare facts about the first president.

In recent years, officials at Mount Vernon have mounted an aggressive campaign to counter this obstacle. On Friday, they received an enormous boost when it was announced that Washington's historic estate received a record-breaking gift of $38 million to construct a research library on its grounds.

The library will bring together materials from the president's estate and other archives. It is expected to attract scholars for primary research, which would filter into new scholarships, making its way to schools and elsewhere.

"We basically had been talking about the need to have this intellectual headquarters for George Washington," said James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. "With this building for scholars, we want to get Washington back into the mainstream and relevant to today's generation."

The first gift for the library, announced at a news conference Friday, comes from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a philanthropic group based in Las Vegas that has given generously to Mount Vernon in the past. In 2001, it bought Gilbert Stuart's famed "Lansdowne" portrait of the first president for the Smithsonian Institution. The gift from the Reynolds Foundation is the largest single donation in Mount Vernon's history and marks the start of an $80 million capital campaign. The library will be called the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, after the foundation's chairman.

The library and adjacent guesthouse, which is expected to open in 2012, will cover 45,000 square feet and be within walking distance of the mansion. The library, officials said, will initially house about 45 books from Washington's library, 450 letters and manuscripts written by Washington and a collection of 1,500 18th-century books and documents. In the future, the library will be the home for Washington's correspondence, a 90-book project that scholars at the University of Virginia have been editing for 40 years.

Part of the new addition will be lodging for scholars, as well as a conference center for discussions on leadership. "There is a lot of stuff left on Washington that has not been studied," said Rees, pointing to efforts last year to decipher the president and farmer's business records. "Their research will inform what we tell people at the estate. The hard part is, how do you use the new information and get it to the tens of millions of people that will never visit Mount Vernon or a library."

The architects, Ayers/Saint/Gross, of the District and Baltimore, were selected in a competitive round, Rees said. The firm just completed the visitors center at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Mount Vernon, which has an annual budget of $35 million, is financed through admissions, retail sales and contributions. Its admissions, which range from $7 to $15, bring in $12 million a year from about 1 million visitors. The estate is owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association and has been open to the public since 1860.

In recent years, administrators have mounted several campaigns to improve the home and grounds and to expand the visitors' experience. In 2006, Mount Vernon unveiled an expansive orientation center and full-fledged museum, supported by a $24 million gift from the Reynolds Foundation. The two connected buildings cost $60 million, part of a fundraising drive that surpassed its goal with $116 million. Up to that point, visitors to Mount Vernon could tour the main house and adjoining buildings, but administrators wanted to provide a fuller explanation of who Washington was and what he had accomplished beyond the presidency.

Another of Rees's next dreams is to have a commercial movie made focusing on the many lives of Washington. "What we want is a 'Titanic' on Washington because so many people out there don't have the exposure in the classroom that we used to have," Rees said.

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