Just before the Civil War, a group of women rescued George Washington's crumbling country plantation from demise, raising funds to buy the Mount Vernon estate and restore it to its 18th-century splendor. Now the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which still owns the mansion, has its sights set on a more modern refurbishment -- giving a 21st-century makeover to the first president's stodgy, powder-wigged image.
Yesterday, supporters of the Mount Vernon estate broke ground on an $85 million museum and education complex, which will recast Washington as a young soldier of swashbuckling derring-do, organizers say. The center, scheduled to open in late 2006, will use a feature film, multimedia presentations and TV-style forensic science to show that Washington was more heroic than stoic.
"People know he was great, but they also think he's kind of boring," said Jim Rees, executive director of the Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. "We also need to tell people that he was a devil-may-care soldier and surveyor."
The 66,700-square-foot project will serve as Washington's presidential library and museum, housing traditional exhibits on such things as the sartorial inclinations of Washington and his wife, Martha, and on Washington's evolution from soldier to politician. One gallery will showcase books about Washington and 40,000 of his personal letters.
To win over those whose primary association with Washington is the dollar bill, the complex will offer "more interactive experiences than you can possibly imagine," said Ellen Walton, regent of the association.
A crime investigation laboratory will demonstrate forensic techniques to show what Washington's face looked like at various ages. A theater in the education center will stage a multimedia production about the Revolutionary War, during which visitors' seats will shake as they hear cannons roar. Two theaters will show a 15-minute, live-action film about Washington in his pre-president days. Ron Maxwell, whose previous movies include the historical epics "Gettysburg" and "Gods and Generals," will direct the $2.5 million film.
"I really want it to have a 'wow factor,' " said Maxwell, who said he is on the hunt for a leading man, who must be statuesque and an able horseman. "George Washington was the first American action hero."
Like the rest of the Mount Vernon estate, the new center will be funded with private money. So far, donors have pledged $70 million, Rees said. Yesterday, many of them gathered under a tent near the mansion, fanning themselves as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the ceremony's keynote speaker, praised the project. A self-described "Mount Vernon regular," O'Connor said the complex will teach young people crucial lessons about Washington, who, she said, is rarely mentioned in textbooks.
"He is a touchstone of leadership and character that each new generation can and must discover," O'Connor said.
To close the ceremony, supporters tossed soil at the base of a newly planted 30-foot red maple, a species Washington raised.
On an expansive field nearby, signs in the ground indicated where the complex's galleries will lie and who is paying for them. Sponsorship is still up for grabs for a few rooms, including a gallery that will be devoted solely to Washington's legendary dentures -- which, Rees said, were made of ivory and the teeth of humans and cows, not wood.
Rees said he expects the center also will tie Mount Vernon more closely to the capital area. The complex, unlike Mount Vernon's current plantation tour, will be indoors, making it a viable place for residents to visit in the winter, Rees said. And with luck, he said, the center will charm even Mount Vernon's "toughest sell" -- the eighth-grade boy.
"I hope it's really talked about," he said.