The new multimilliondollar Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington opens at Mt. Vernon.
George Washington biographer Ron Chernow says the library's creation is well-timed.
The light-filled main reading room.
Library president and CEO Curtis Viebranz poses in the formal dining room at Mount Vernon, where more than one million visitors per year begin the tour.
A rendering of the new library.
Books in the new library.
Pieces in the new library.
George Washington's book plate for items in his library.
Writings in the new library.
Books in the new library.
An 1893 portrait by American painter Rembrandt Peale.
by annie groer | August 19, 2013 | Lifestyle
Some 216 years after leaving office, America’s first commander-in-chief will finally get what many of his modern counterparts enjoyed during their lifetimes: a presidential library. On September 27, amid much fanfare, the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington will officially open.
“I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil, and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting,” Washington wrote to a friend following his retirement in 1797, two years before he died at 67.
“May be interesting?” Talk to those most closely involved with the new library and you’ll conclude that Washington’s papers are very nearly sacred texts, making the building in which they are housed a temple to his magnificent legacy.
Built just outside the main entrance of the 500-acre property at Mount Vernon—Washington’s meticulously restored 18th-century plantation house near Alexandria—the $47 million library is intended as a combination archive, research center, think tank, innovative education facility, conference venue, and leadership lab. Within its walls (including a metal vault for the rarest of documents) can be found thousands of letters, manuscripts, maps, surveys, photographs, diaries, and, of course, centuries-old books, including 45 volumes from George Washington’s long-scattered personal collection.
The jewel in that literary crown may well be his 1789 copy of the Acts of Congress, essentially a 106-page operating manual on how to be president, acquired by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for $9.8 million at a nail-biting auction last year. Between the fine leather covers are the Constitution and its proposed, but not ratified, Bill of Rights; a record of what the House and Senate accomplished during that first congressional year; and margin jottings written in Washington’s distinctive, elegant hand. (Of note: He declared that an annual assessment of the state of the union is “required.”)
While the average American may not feel a burning need for such a library, Mount Vernon President and CEO Curtis Viebranz contends that no chief executive deserves the honor more, “nor is there a better story to tell.” Though Washington never attended college—he often gets the least credit for intellectual prowess when compared with other founding fathers—he was far better read than his military, civic, and agrarian background would have led his contemporaries to acknowledge, says Viebranz. The man was, quite simply, self-taught and whip smart.
Washington’s personal library, which contained nearly 1,300 titles on subjects ranging from botany and navigation to poetry and biography, was broken up after his death in 1799. These days, a Mount Vernon librarian “is always on the lookout, and we have a pretty good idea of where most of these volumes are,” says Viebranz. If originals are unavailable for purchase, contemporaneous copies are substituted.
THE CENTER OF SCHOLARSHIP
Unlike GW’s beloved mansion—with 19-plus rooms but no indoor bathrooms—which opened to the public in 1860, or the Ford Orientation Center, or the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, which opened in 2006, the new library will be off-limits to the one million visitors who make a sojourn to Mount Vernon each year, though public events may be added later on to increase accessibility.
For now, the three-level building made of Ohio sandstone, Southern Illinois sycamore, and soaring expanses of glass will mostly serve serious and amateur scholars who demonstrate an eagerness to expand and share their deep research about George Washington in his multiple roles: the brilliant commanding general who led beleaguered colonists and foreign allies into battle to end despotic British rule; the gifted, self-effacing leader chosen by his fellow founders to head the postwar Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, at which the blueprint for democracy was ultimately crafted; the nation’s first president, who preferred to leave office after two four-year terms rather than serve for life or, heaven forbid, adopt the title of “king”; and the slave-owning Virginia farmer and agricultural pioneer who experimented with everything from crop rotation to animal husbandry.
Historian and biographer Ron Chernow, author of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning Washington: A Life, says the library’s belated construction is well-timed. Though the first president “is in no immediate danger of being entirely forgotten,” he says, “I think he has faded somewhat in historic memories in recent years.”
There are 13 presidential libraries and museums under the aegis of the National Archives, the earliest (and smallest) honoring Herbert Hoover in West Branch, Iowa, and the newest, largest, and most expensive paying homage to George W. Bush in Dallas, Texas. The most popular is Bill Clinton’s in Little Rock, Arkansas. All were built with private and nonfederal funds. George Washington’s will be managed by Mount Vernon, not the National Archives. Thus, George Washington is getting his due, and historian Chernow believes it is vital to remind Americans, particularly younger generations, that Washington’s greatness derives from the fact that he “forged the office of president after reluctantly taking the job…. He had an understanding with his colleagues that he would serve a year or two, but he faced one crisis after another and ended up serving two terms.” Moreover, he retired voluntarily. His eight years of service remained the standard until 1940, when Franklin Roosevelt won a third term, and then an unprecedented fourth in 1944, as World War II raged. Only after his death was the office limited by law to two terms.
Washington made other significant contributions, Chernow explains. Despite there being no constitutional mention of a cabinet, he surrounded himself with stellar advisers: “It doesn’t get any better” than Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, the historian says. As for the inauguration, the Constitution notes only that the president must take the oath. “Washington decided it should be before a multitude of citizens. He kisses the Bible. He has a celebration that night,” Chernow says. Such peaceful and public traditions largely endure today.
Nor did Washington lack a sense of theater. Though he traveled by coach or carriage, he would mount a white parade horse on the outskirts of whatever town he visited, for greatest effect. Notes Chernow: “He was not a great speaker—he didn’t have that kind of spontaneity—but he was a master of his own image, and to that extent he was a very modern politician.”
Appropriately, the library will serve as an incubator for ongoing research on all aspects of Washington’s life and times. Just 50 yards away, the new Scholars’ Residence can house up to six academics and graduate students at a time. Topics chosen by the inaugural class of fellows include the treatment of prisoners of war during the American Revolution, the history of Washington’s presidency, and the role of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in the historic preservation movement.
Dr. James Kirby Martin of the University of Houston arrives in late September to focus on Washington’s leadership style in the hopes of answering the question, “Why was he so capable of wielding power without abusing it?” when subsequent revolutionaries—Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, among others—became vicious dictators.
Martin obligingly offers a few theories even before he starts poring over the library’s invaluable source materials. “Washington was not afraid of intelligence or talent in his subordinates, and didn’t surround himself with lackeys. He was not afraid of dissent and not dismissive of the opposition,” he explains. “He knew you must lead by example as a military leader and as president. He was excited about learning and knew he didn’t have all the answers.”
Fittingly, the library is partnering with the University of Richmond’s Jepson School of Leadership Studies to offer a Washington-centric, not-forcredit leadership curriculum for influencers in government, the military, corporations, and nonprofits. Using state-of-the-art technology, including a network-quality broadcast studio, the facility will also serve as a national and international classroom to promote Washington’s legacy among students and teachers via video instruction.
PRESERVING A LEGACY
Though the library honors the nation’s first president, it is not about the man alone: Another focus is on the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which bought the neglected mansion, outbuildings, and surrounding 200 acres from his descendants to create America’s first national historic preservation project.
Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina organized the group after her mother, Louisa, spied the dilapidated plantation house and untended grounds from a passing steamboat in 1853. “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it? It does seem such a blot on our country!” she wrote to her daughter.
By 1858, countless women, men, and even children had donated an impressive $200,000, which works out to about $5.7 million today. By 1860, with the country on the brink of civil war, Mount Vernon opened to the public.
“Imagine, here is a woman telling John Augustine Washington, ‘I want to buy your property, but you’ll have to take a note,’” says Viebranz, noting that over time the Ladies’ Association went on to acquire 300 adjoining acres and many of the first president’s original furnishings, books, and artifacts.
If Cunningham has a 21st-century counterpart, it is Fred W. Smith, a multimillionaire Las Vegas media mogul for whom the new library is named. Back in 2001, he was surprised to learn that unless the Smithsonian found $20 million to buy Gilbert Stuart’s Lansdowne portrait of Washington, the British lord who owned it and loaned it to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery would ship it back to London to be sold at auction.
Under Smith’s leadership as board chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, his fellow trustees agreed to grant the Smithsonian $20 million to buy the painting and donate another $10 million to finance its three-year tour of American museums and to complete construction of a permanent gallery to house the work at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. Even before the tour ended, Smith, of Nevada—not to be confused with FedEx CEO Frederick W. Smith of Tennessee—was smitten by George Washington.
Thus the foundation, which primarily focuses on medical, geriatric, and journalistic programs, aided Mount Vernon and the National Portrait Gallery as part of its Special Projects initiative. In the past dozen years, it has given more than $70 million to Mount Vernon, including $38 million for the library, making it the largest institutional donor.
A SENSE OF PLACE
On a glorious summer afternoon three months before the grand opening, Viebranz—a former HBO and Time Warner executive—led a hard-hat tour of the unfinished library, already a visual knockout worthy of its lofty mission.
The two-story, sky-lit main hall—with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides overlooking such native trees as redbud and dogwood—features marble busts of the six best-known founding fathers: Washington, of course, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton.
“There was clearly a well-documented alchemy among those six guys,” says Viebranz, “but Washington, first and foremost, was without question the most popular and powerful among them.”
To the right of the main hall, where scholars can study in cozy private rooms or amid the stacks, is a bust of Martha Washington. To the left, in the rare book suite, walls are lined with locking glass cases; beyond that room is the oval vault. Sophisticated climate control and security devices are built in throughout the building.
The library’s David M. Rubenstein Leadership Hall—named for the Washington philanthropist whose $10 million gift pushed the fundraising drive over the $100 million mark (they ultimately raised $106 million)—will be the site of conferences and presentations. With $47 million covering building costs, the rest will be used for an endowment, maintenance, programming, and acquisitions. Viebranz sounds almost wistful when recalling how, in December 2012, in the midst of bitter congressional budget fights and threats of a government shutdown, “we welcomed the bipartisan committee on debt reduction to Mount Vernon [to stay] for two days.” (The “head knocking” took place in the Ann Pamela Cunningham administration building only because the library was unfinished.)
Today, with the opening date looming, Viebranz is very much looking ahead. Three days after the gala event on September 26—all five living presidents have been invited—Professor Denver Brunsman, whose specialty is the political and social history of the American Revolution, will deliver his “George Washington and His World” lecture from the library to his students from George Washington University in the District.
A decade from now, the library will become the repository for the vast trove of materials used by the University of Virginia for its 90-volume The Papers of George Washington project to which the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association donates $25,000 annually. More than 60 volumes have already been published, based on approximately 135,000 copies of Washington’s letters and documents gathered from 300 libraries and archives worldwide.
As he watches the workmen move about, Viebranz best explains the library’s mission of keeping Washington solidly in the national consciousness. “We want to continue to collect rare books and documents for review by scholars [and] to create a center to study Washington in the founding era,” he explains. And, he says, the new library will ensure that Washington’s legacy “is not lost somewhere between ivy-covered walls and the digital age.”
photography by greg powers; courtesy of the mount vernon ladies’ assocation; foster wiley (viebranz); courtesy of the mount vernon ladies’ assocation (letter, books, reading room); nina subin (chernow)
September 17, 2018