Designing Presidents

At dusk, when the light fades and shadows gather, the colors in what George Washington called the “New Room” at Mount Vernon still give pause. Thin strips of arresting white wallpaper handpainted blue-green and made to resemble a rich fabric lead the eye skyward, past the paintings to verdigris friezes just below concave moldings called coves, placed where the wall meets the ceiling to eliminate interior angles and create an illusion of great height.

The ceiling, highlighted once again as it had been when General and Lady Washington entertained visitors, is today as impressive as it must have been then. The white ornamental plaster that begins just above the friezes intensifies the impression that the ceiling is higher than it is; the delicate agricultural imagery on the ceiling reflects Washington’s sense of himself as a farmer and his vision of a continent to clear, plow and plant.

In his correspondence, Washington referred to the art on the walls—landscapes and battle scenes, mainly—as “fancy pieces of my own chusing [sic].” That these paintings and sketches can be thought of as masculine choices supports the now-accepted idea that, in the 18th century, interior design was very much part of what Susan Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s senior curator, describes as a gentleman’s repertoire: “A gentleman was expected to know about architecture and the decorative arts, and to decide how his house should look, inside and out.”

The Founding Fathers’ concept of the gentleman can be traced to the Renaissance ideal of the courtier, explains Amanda Isaac, another Mount Vernon curator. “A gentleman was a man of taste, and the idea of taste carried more weight in Washington’s time. It meant you had an appreciation of all elements of human endeavor. That included a sophisticated knowledge of the fine as well as the decorative arts—of tableware, textiles and the like—as well as literature, history and philosophy.”

Refined taste was especially important if you were a public figure, and part of your house was a public space. Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier were nothing if not public spaces—guests showed up, invited or not, by the score. Others, of course, were distinguished statesmen who arrived by special invitation to help chart the course for an emerging international power.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison wished to create outposts of the Enlightenment in the New World. But they wished to do so as citizens of a self-governing republic, not subjects of a king. Their taste itself would attest to their capacity for self-government, in part because it was rooted in the most enduring values of classical antiquity.

“Although Martha Washington brought items from her earlier marriage when she moved to Mount Vernon in 1759, Washington himself made the decisions about how the house was to be decorated,” Schoelwer says. “While it is tempting to think of these responsibilities as ‘woman’s work,’ this was not the case.”

Around 1783, as the American Revolution was ending and General (later President) Washington thought he was retiring from public service, he met Samuel Vaughan, a British merchant with whom he corresponded about making changes to Mount Vernon. In 1761, Washington had come into sole possession of the estate, on which sat a much smaller farmhouse built by his father, Augustine Washington, in 1735.

George Washington would work on enlarging the house for two decades. Vaughan became Washington’s mentor in this undertaking, and after his return to England, Vaughan sent the marble mantel and porcelain vases now in the New Room as gifts. A painting of the Battle of Minden in the Seven Years’ War, another gift from Vaughan, was sent in hopes it would hang in the New Room. Washington instead displayed it in a bedchamber. This decision might reflect Washington’s determination that the New Room feature primarily American works. Besides the Battle of Bunker Hill, for example, there are two scenes of the falls of the Potomac, plus views of Harper’s Ferry, the falls of the Genesee and the Hudson River. “Washington described the New Room as a ‘picture gallery,’ which was a standard feature of the homes of distinguished British families,” Schoelwer says of the addition to the north side of the mansion, which until 2013 was assumed to be a banqueting hall.  

Last March, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which owns the estate, completed a 14-month, $600,000 project to make the New Room look as it did during the last year of Washington’s life. The cove above the cornice, once dark green, is now white, and the wallpaper border has been reconstructed after an identical pattern from the Musée des Arts Decoratifs archives in Paris, which Washington—having never crossed the Atlantic—might have seen in a pattern book. Because the Washingtons’ guests never mention a dining table in the room, the table that for years was its centerpiece is gone.

The New Room demonstrates Washington’s interest in architecture and design, which Emilie Johnson, a curator at Monticello, thinks has been unappreciated: “The popular perception of Washington is as a soldier and man of action, while Jefferson is strongly identified as an intellectual and man of letters. For that reason, Washington has never gotten the recognition he probably deserves as a man of taste,” says Johnson. “He is only now beginning to be appreciated as the refined gentleman that he was.”

Mount Vernon, like Jefferson’s Monticello and Madison’s Montpelier, was indeed a public statement. Great men “who construct their own shelter replicate themselves, at their deepest and most significant level, in their houses,” wrote Jack McLaughlin in Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. “They are what they build.” And vice versa: They were the architects and designers not only of their houses—and their reputations—but of a nation preparing to take its place among the other great nations of the world.

Washington, Jefferson and Madison built their houses to impress European dignitaries as well as to inspire their fellow Americans. “These statesmen understood that fashion and gentility” would “put Americans on the same plane as Europe,” says Johnson. “Their refinement was a way to get a seat at the table in international politics, economics and diplomacy.” This was not accomplished overnight, but they did succeed, becoming—within 50 years—as prosperous and powerful as France and Great Britain.

Nowhere is this refinement on better display than at Monticello, the house against which all other Virginia plantation houses are judged. There were two Monticellos, actually. There was the plantation house he began in 1770, and then, after his return from France, the villa we know today. This renovation, which began around 1796, was not finished until around 1809. The Sage of Monticello also designed Poplar Forest near Lynchburg and the University of Virginia. Had he done little else, he might be remembered as America’s first and, for his time, finest architect.

“During this period, the work architects do—providing rendering of the house to be built—wasn’t really appreciated,” says Bryan Clark Green, the author, with Ann Miller, of Building a President’s House: The Construction of James Madison’s Montpelier. “People paid for the construction of the house, and the idea of the architect as a designer was not fully recognized. Even so, Washington and Madison were clearly the architects of their houses, although not to the extent Jefferson was the architect of Monticello. They knew what they wanted their houses to look like and worked closely with their builders to make sure they got it.”

Tourists visiting Monticello delight in what Jefferson called his “conveniences”: the cannonball clock; the doors that open in tandem; the dumbwaiter that brings wine bottles directly from the cellar to the dining room; the revolving door that allows plates and platters to pass in and out of the dining room unobtrusively. “These devices offer a tangible way for the visitor to understand something about Jefferson’s mind,” says Johnson. Monticello staff is now at work on a mechanism he designed for the closet in his bedchamber, which should be completed within the next two years. “It seems to have been a ‘lazy Susan’ for his clothes,” Johnson explains.

Jefferson and Washington also took a keen interest in their clothing and made their own fashion statements, different as they were. Washington helped design his own military uniforms, for example, writing detailed notes about color, cuffs, buttons, epaulettes and the presence or absence of gold braiding. Washington was exacting about his day-to-day clothing, too, and fragments that remain are of silk and good quality wool from England. Jefferson was clearly—to use a modern term—the more metrosexual of the two. Only small pieces of the textiles he chose for his own wardrobe remain, but they are of the finest silk, ordered from France and England.  

Jefferson also designed valances for four of the windows in the parlor at Monticello in 1808, specifying that they be made “of crimson damask silk lined with green and a yellow fringe.” Such textiles were pricey at that time, costing the equivalent today of a dining room table or sofa. Much of his tableware was purchased in France, and it was so prized by his descendants that a good deal of it still exists today. The Sage of Monticello also gave considerable attention to aspects of aesthetics that visitors of his day might have understood but mean little or nothing to us. The hall where tourists enter—where the American Indian artifacts are displayed—is the least formal public space inside the mansion; it is also as far as most members of the public were allowed. “This is by design,” Johnson says. “The house follows the classical architectural orders, so the east entrance is Doric, and the hall is Ionic. When you pass through the double-action doors into the parlor, you are in a room that is Corinthian. Guests allowed into these interior spaces would notice the increased architectural complexity of style.”

James Madison did not exhibit the same intensity of interest in the decorative arts as Washington, much less Jefferson, but Montpelier still bears the stamp of his good taste. He, like Washington, inherited a modest farmhouse built by his father, James Madison Sr., around 1764. After his marriage to Dolley Payne Todd in 1794, the future president and his wife began to enlarge the house, which was completed to their satisfaction in 1812.

Madison, who was of the generation that followed Washington’s, is in some sense a transitional figure. A bookish, somewhat retiring man, he seems to have left more—but hardly all—decision-making about the household to his famously style-setting spouse. “Although Dolley was a formidable personality, the art in the dining room is clearly a male’s choice,” says Meg Kennedy, Montpelier’s director of museum services. There are prints representing events of the American Revolution and portraits of Benjamin Franklin, Martin Van Buren, Andrew Jackson and, of course, Washington and Jefferson. “Madison is also underrated as an architect because his friend and neighbor at Monticello is so much more closely associated with aesthetic pursuits,” says Kennedy. Madison consulted Jefferson about changes to Montpelier, and both used the services of James Dinsmore and John Neilson, principal builders of UVA’s Rotunda.

When Jefferson was in France, Madison wrote to ask if his friend could obtain for him a set of colored engravings by George-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon and eminent French naturalist. Madison told Jefferson he “thought that the cuts of the quadrupeds in Buffon, if arranged in frames, would make both an agreeable and instructive piece of wall furniture.” Madison also purchased a set of bedroom curtains “in lively colors.” Unfortunately, no one knows what he meant by “lively.” Although friends described Madison as dressing in a “plain” style, he was not oblivious to the language of clothing. For his presidential inauguration in 1809, he selected a suit of domestically manufactured—not imported—merino wool.

After the White House burned in 1814, the Madisons were forced to live in other quarters. They later decorated Montpelier with pieces brought back from these rented residences, as well as furnishings purchased from European diplomats preparing to sail back across the Atlantic. Madison, who shared Jefferson’s interest in “conveniences,” installed a set of fanlights beside the internal door to the parlor that could slide into recessions in the walls. Not only decorative, these “pocket windows” maximized air flow. Another set flank the central front door. “Visitors often commented on how these windows brought a feeling of the outdoors into the house,” Kennedy says.

Montpelier has posed special challenges for preservationists. In the late 19th century, it was acquired by William DuPont. His descendants added 33 rooms, dozens of dependencies and a full-length racetrack. Today the house is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has restored the exterior and much of the interior to the way it looked when the Madisons made it their home. (In November, Montpelier received a $10 million gift to underwrite the ongoing restoration of the mansion’s rooms as well as reconstruction of the enslaved community site near the house.)

Back at Mount Vernon, the sun has set, and the New Room would be plunged into darkness but for one feature: the grand Palladian window on the north wall. The curtains that once festooned the window have been removed. A re-examination of the woodwork in 2013 found no evidence of 18th-century holes for hardware to support such window treatments. Because the room was to be a picture gallery during the day, Washington, it might be assumed, wanted to maximize natural light and display his art collection to its finest effect.

The absence of these curtains, even in the moonlight, might seem a small concession to historical accuracy. But it is a form of addition by subtraction. Their loss is our gain.

MountVernon.org, Monticello.org, Montpelier.org

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