“It was a real novelty back then,” says Susan Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s senior curator, of the fancy silk and worsted wool sofa with scrolled arms and rows of brass tacks. “In today’s terms, you would say it was trending.”
The Washingtons’ friend and neighbor George William Fairfax was moving to England in 1774 and wasn’t able to take his very fashionable blue damask sofa and eight matching chairs.
Without Craigslist, what was Fairfax to do?
He gifted the elegant furnishings to the Washingtons. The suite arrived at Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War, Schoelwer says, and Martha Washington put the sofa, chairs and the matching draperies in the front parlor, dressing up the room where they entertained such big-name guests as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. Over the years, this furniture disappeared, as did any idea of what it looked like — until now.
Thanks to new forensic techniques and historical document discoveries, the room will more closely resemble its 1799 appearance, including being painted cream and featuring re-creations of the stylish “Saxon blue” camelback Chippendale-style sofa, chairs extravagantly upholstered on both seat and back, and fancy fringed and tasseled draperies. The description of the Fairfax suite came from a ledger the Fairfax family kept that Mount Vernon bought at auction in 2013. It detailed the Fairfax purchase of the furniture in London and its shipment to Virginia in 1763. Although Mount Vernon curators knew a suite of furniture had been gifted to Washington, the ledger provided the first description of what it looked like.
Sofas were a big deal in the colonies. Although in England, sofa use dates back to the 1600s, it was only around 1750 that they showed up in wealthier homes in South Carolina, Maryland and Philadelphia, Schoelwer says. In Virginia back then, more prosperous residents were probably still using daybeds. The luxurious fabric and stylish British workmanship on the Fairfax piece, the first documented sofa in Virginia, made the Washingtons’ parlor a stylish space.
Mount Vernon curators worked with decorative arts experts and top historical textile, upholstery and cabinet makers in the United States and England to re-create the Fairfax furniture.
The front parlor has undergone four major renovations throughout the years, each time being changed to reflect the latest historical findings. At the last major restoration in 1981, the walls were painted Prussian blue and the room was furnished with a pale blue sofa and a Chippendale-style gaming table and chairs.
“We find layers of family history here, and each room comes alive in a more dynamic way each time each time it’s redone,” Schoelwer says. “It’s not just a generic period room. Each room is a chapter of the Washingtons’ biography.”
The 10 family portraits in the room were conserved or digitally reproduced and put into period-appropriate reproduction frames. Other changes to the front parlor included re-creating three neoclassical mirrors that were an important part of the Washingtons’ signature style.
According to Thomas Reinhart, Mount Vernon’s director of architecture, the room’s woodwork was returned to its 1799 cream paint color using advanced paint analysis technology. Although an analysis in 1980 identified seven layers of paint in the room, a recent one found 15. Reinhart says among the most important work done in the room was the conservation of the 1760s yellow pine paneling, which had dried over the centuries and left gaps in the wall. The panels were rehydrated so they fit back smoothly in their framework, restoring the room to its original elegance.
The sofa now goes perfectly with the carpeting. A new Wilton carpet was woven for the room in England in 2002 based on descriptions in 18th-century Washington correspondence and period patterns. In 1797, George Washington, after consulting with his wife, requested his secretary to order a carpet for the front parlor, saying in a letter that “as the furniture was blue, the ground or principal flowers in it ought to be blue also.”
“This story really humanizes the Washingtons,” Reinhart says. “They were married for 40 years and they were updating their house together. They were really fashion-forward.”
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