This month, as part of our Historic Home Contest, we are focusing on historic preservation. Today we look at how it all started.

Back in 1853, a bunch of women banded together to save George Washington’s home, and the historic preservation movement was born.

“The ladies are very influential,” said Dennis Pogue, vice president of preservation at Mount Vernon. “They are one of the first groups that really sets out to take over a site specifically with the idea in mind that they need to preserve this [estate] and it’s for the good of the country. In particular, they want to maintain it as it was in Washington’s day so that people can come and visit it.” 

Mount Vernon is where the historic preservation movement was born. (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)

It was a chance sighting of the first president’s home from a ship that started it all. Louisa Bird was sailing down the Potomac River and happened to catch a glimpse of Mount Vernon. Washington had died many years before, and his relatives were struggling to maintain the grand estate. Bird was horrified by the peeling paint and overgrown weeds. The portico was in such disrepair that it was propped up by a sailing mast.  

Bird wrote to her daughter Ann Pamela Cunningham that Mount Vernon’s decay was “a blot on our country.” Inspired by her mother, Cunningham set out to save it. She founded an organization dedicated to preserving Washington’s home — the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — launched a nationwide campaign to raise money and enlisted the help of former Massachusetts senator Edward Everett, a Washington aficionado.

John Augustine Washington III, a great-grandnephew of Washington’s, had been trying to unload the property. He had approached the United States government and the state of Virginia, hoping one of them would take it off his hands. They refused him.  

But when Cunningham met with him about her group buying the home, he initially turned her down.  

“The ladies are the white knights that come to the rescue,” Pogue said, “but they are the wrong sex.”

John Augustine Washington III eventually acquiesced when Cunningham offered a substantial down payment on the $200,000 purchase price.  

“Not only is [the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association] really the first national historic preservation group in America, but it’s, of course, all women,” Pogue said. “As far as I know, it’s one of the first groups of any kind really that is run completely by women at this time period. That’s an interesting aspect of historic preservation. In the early years, women really were the catalysts behind a lot of this.”

Much of the reason for the women’s involvement was that there were not a lot of other options available to them at that time. Also, these were homes, which were usually thought of as a woman’s domain.  

But saving Washington’s home became more than just something to occupy their time. They set a standard for the historic preservation movement.  

“There were a lot of other groups in the years following that saw [preserving Mount Vernon] as a model,” Pogue said. “Virginia becomes a real center for [historic preservation] for obvious reasons.”

Cunningham summed up the group’s mission in her farewell speech in 1874. In powerful, if somewhat Victorian language, she commanded the ladies, “Let no irreverent hand change it; no vandal hands desecrate it with the fingers of progress. Those who go to the home in which he lived and died to see in what he lived and died. Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change.”

“Basically, she calls out the mission as we see it today, which is to attempt to preserve Mount Vernon as much as it was in Washington’s day,” Pogue said.

Some may view historic preservation as living in the past, but for those involved with it, it is ever-changing.

“Even though we’ve been around 150 years, we continue to evolve,” Pogue said. “It’s an ongoing process, and I think that’s a very cool thing. There’s that whole stuck-in-time thing, but we’re trying to do our best to keep it dynamic and part of that is doing more research and learning more about it.”

Historic preservation is “all about people. What we’ve got are buildings, but it’s really people that we’re interested in.”

More on historic preservation

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