The story goes like this: Louisa Cunningham was traveling down the Potomac on her way back to South Carolina after a trip to Philadelphia. At one point along the river she looked out the window and saw a once stately manor staring down at her, clearly having seen better days. Its columns were crumbling, the landscape untended, and the roof propped up by the masts of ships.
The year was 1853 and the manor was Mount Vernon the home of George Washington.
At the time John Augustine Washington III, the great grand-nephew of President Washington owned Mount Vernon. Lack of funds and the wear and tear of thousands of visitors left him fielding offers to sell, despite his wish that the house be placed in government hands.
Shocked, astounded, and maybe a little disgusted, Louisa writes a scathing letter to her daughter, Ann Pamela, asking why it was not possible for women to fight for the estate when it was clear that the men would not. Ann Pamela agreed with her mother and wrote an anonymous letter to the Charleston Mercury asking for action. By April 6, 1858 the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union signed a contract with John Washington III for $200,000, eventually taking charge of the mansion on February 22, 1860, on the 128th Anniversary of George Washington's birth.
It seems easy, right? A group of women, from the upper class of American society, gathering together from across the nation to raise the money to save the home of the father of our country. How could anyone oppose this cause? Unfortunately, in 1853 the United States was on the brink of civil war, and tensions were high. Despite Ann Pamela’s initial plan to raise money and buy the house for the Commonwealth of Virginia it soon became clear that the state would not support them. In 1858, she approached Washington directly and was rebuffed. Not to be deterred she waited a night and approached Washington’s wife, who was able to convince her husband to sign the contract on April 6. Since that day the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has worked to preserve and protect the home of George Washington.
These were amazing women—working at a time when simply writing into a newspaper was considered scandalous— who successfully saved a home important to understanding the life of one of our founding fathers. Ann Pamela did all of this despite having been confined to a bed for most of the previous 21 years (she suffered from a spinal injury). I remember the day I first heard this story. I was an undergrad at William and Mary, about to embark on a tour of homes in Tidewater Virginia. At that time I took the story as inspiration—that anything is possible if you are determined and persistent.
Now, after three years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I see the journey of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association as mirroring our work as preservationists today. We all work against the odds; against time and intense opposition. Sometimes we fail, but more often than not we are able to save our own Mount Vernons for future generations to enjoy. All of us have a little bit of Ann Pamela Cunningham and the Mount Vernon’s Ladies Association in our work, so in the comment section below tell us about your experiences, a place you lost, or a place that you fought hard to preserve.
Looking back form our present assured stand-point of an accomplished fact, my memory cannot fail or recall the early vicissitudes the oft-discouraging progress of our labor of love, in redeeming from oblivion and sure decay the home and grave of the immortal Washington! Then we lived on hope! We would not yield to despair. Now we can rejoice with intense satisfaction to know that Mount Vernon is ours--the Nations! And well may I feel almost overpowered to find myself, at this moment, in the midst of ladies representing the varied sections of our country, pledged to guard that a sacred spot forever...
From the address by the first Regent, Ann Pamela Cunningham, at the first meeting of the Grand Council which she presided, November 19, 1866 (Mount Vernon is Ours by Elswyth Thane.) Additional information was from the Mount Vernon website and Thomas Page’s History and Preservation of Mount Vernon. If you would like to read more about Ann Pamela Cunningham and other woman pivotal in the preservation of Mount Vernon visit this webpage. The archival photographs are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey.
-- Priya Chhaya
Priya Chhaya is the program assistant in the office of Training and Online Information Services at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.