MOUNT VERNON, Va. — George Washington’s 1796 farewell address contained a stern warning to the nation about partisan politics, or the “dangers of faction” in the language of the founding fathers.
So, when a bipartisan group of U.S. senators was looking last fall to reach agreement on a plan to address the country’s budget and deficit woes, it seemed only natural that they went outside the Capital Beltway and met at Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, in hopes of finding inspiration in Washington’s shadow.
It’s the kind of meeting that the keepers of Mount Vernon hope to promote as they work toward completion of a $47 million National Library for the Study of Mount Vernon. The library, now under construction, is scheduled to open Sept. 27.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., one of the members of the Gang of Eight who met at Mount Vernon in the fall, said it’s an ideal place to meet and think about the long-term health of the republic.
“To be able to be in the quintessential American history site, and talk about where America is heading in the 21st century, is pretty cool,” said Warner, who is sponsoring legislation to move the Presidents’ Day holiday from the third Monday in February to Feb. 22, Washington’s birth date. “I think we all understood the seriousness of what we were doing, but (being at Mount Vernon), boy, it sure did drive the point home.”
The library will serve as a presidential library of sorts, with a few important distinctions from the dozen or so modern presidential libraries that operate under the auspices of the National Archives.
For starters, Mount Vernon has prided itself on never accepting government funding, and makes a point to emphasize that this library is not affiliated with the federal government, as modern presidential libraries are.
The planned library is not intended for visits by the general public. It is designed as a scholarly destination and a conference center for groups that see a benefit from soaking in the estate’s historical vibe. Mount Vernon, which draws about a million visitors a year, has extensive exhibits open for public view, including a museum, orientation and education center that all opened in 2006, as well as the centerpiece mansion overlooking the Potomac River.
And the library is a project on a smaller scale than modern presidential libraries. Washington’s library comes with a $47 million price tag, though Mount Vernon is raising $100 million to endow the ongoing operation of the library. Mount Vernon President Curt Viebranz says the estate has so far raised $93 million. Meanwhile, the George W. Bush Presidential Library, set to open May 1 in Dallas on the campus of Southern Methodist University, has a $250 million price tag and, at 225,000 square feet, is five times the size of the Mount Vernon library.
Lastly, modern presidential libraries, by law, inherit the documents and papers that presidents generated over the course of a term in office. Washington’s papers scattered to the winds after his death and are considered some of the most valuable artifacts in American history. When documents and artifacts with a Washingtonian provenance make their way to auction, they fetch premium prices. Mount Vernon has been working in recent years to reacquire key papers when it can.
Washington himself had hoped to build a library to archive his personal papers, which he said with understatement “are voluminous and may be interesting.”
Among the outstanding features of the library: a climate-controlled, oval-shaped vault that will house the estate’s rare books — basically the books that Washington himself owned and touched that the estate has been able to acquire.
Just 150 feet from the library proper is a 6,000-square-foot scholars’ residence that will be home to seven researchers a year who will live there and study topics related to the founding father. The inaugural group of scholars, announced last month, includes researchers who plan to study Washington’s role in shaping the Constitution, the plight of enemy prisoners in the Revolutionary War and Mount Vernon’s role in sparking the historic preservation movement, among other topics.
Conference rooms that accommodate groups of 10 to 75 are built into the library, along with a leadership hall that will feature ultra high-definition video technology to allow the library to record seminars held there and make them available over the Internet.
Mount Vernon has a 200-seat auditorium, but it is ill-equipped for small and mid-size groups.
Viebranz said Mount Vernon’s location, about 15 miles south of Washington, will appeal to conference organizers. It’s close to the city and Washington Reagan National Airport, but just far enough out to feel like a getaway. And psychologically, it’s worlds away from the us-vs.-them mentality that dominates the city named for the first president.
“It’s hard for anyone to come here and not want to drop their gun belt at the door,” he said.