Supporters of the historic home, including Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, broke ground on a $47 million presidential library that is designed to be the pre-eminent location for scholarship on Washington.
“It drives us crazy that so little is known about Washington across the country,” said James C. Rees, president of Mount Vernon. In his 26 years on the job, he has read survey after survey that says classroom lessons on Washington have declined to about 10 percent of what it was 50 years ago.
“We really want to do a lot with this building. We want to be looked upon as the intellectual center for Washington,” Rees said.
The complex will be built on 15 acres that are part of Washington’s original farm. The library, consisting of three levels built into the hillside, will be 45,000 square feet and a guesthouse will be 6,000 square feet. Along with a courtyard and parking area, the project will cover about five acres, leaving the rest wooded.
The project is expected to be completed in 2013. Rees announced Mount Vernon had raised $70 million for the overall campaign of $100 million. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation gave $38 million for the library, the largest gift in Mount Vernon’s history. The house and estate, opened to the public since 1860, is privately funded.
Washington was quite a reader and collector, Rees said. The library will have room for more than 15,000 rare books, maps, letters, manuscripts and newspapers. Washington owned 87 of the 2,500 rare 18th and 19th century books kept by Mount Vernon, which will now receive state-of-the-art preservation. They also have 450 letters and other manuscripts written in Washington’s hand.
The first president’s own books included “The American museum, or Repository of ancient and modern fugitive pieces &c,” by Mathew Carey; a volume on American biography by Jeremy Belknap; botany and shipbuilding books; Andrew Hamilton’s book on taxations; a translation of a history of Don Quixote and poetry by Robert Burns.
Recently the estate was given an 18 volume encyclopedia, published in 1798, that Washington owned.
In addition the library will protect the records of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, the historic preservation organization that runs the historic property, and the modern collections of 18,000 accounts about the Washington family and 18th century American life. Meeting spaces will host seminars and lectures, as well as leadership seminars and teacher training programs. One meeting room will have a video display wall, measuring 18 feet wide by 8 feet tall.
When completed, Rees also announced, the library will be the home for the Papers of George Washington, a monumental project now at the University of Virginia. “They have finished 60 of 90 volumes and in 15 years all the records will come to Mount Vernon,” Rees said.
Expansion of the facilities at Mount Vernon have found a loyal patron in the Reynolds Foundation. With their donation to the library, they have given $69 million to the site’s projects. The library will be named the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington after the foundation’s chairman.
The guesthouse will have accommodations for up to eight scholars. “We want the center to be a place where scholars meet and generate new ideas about Washington. Then the educators can spread it out to everyone else,” Rees said.
The building will be designed by Ayers Saint Gross, a Washington firm. “The building is tucked into the trees, so no 18th century trees will be cut down,” Rees said. “We wanted it tucked into the woods to have a studious environment for the scholars and not draw away from the tourist attraction.”