Since Franklin Roosevelt, every modern U.S. president has opened his own presidential library.
On Friday, President George Washington, the nation’s first, finally will get his turn, as a state-of-the-art presidential library is christened in his honor.
Washington’s beloved Mount Vernon steps into a bold new era with the formal opening of The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.
Some 800 dignitaries, officials, and VIPs were on hand to witness the unveiling of a library purpose-built to preserve the original books and papers from Gen. Washington’s personal collection.
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Noted historian and best-selling author David McCullough was the keynote speaker.
The 45,000-square-foot library includes a residence for visiting scholars. The collection includes approximately 450 handwritten letters and manuscripts, including Washington’s personal diary. They will be housed in a secure area dubbed "The Vault."
The Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association — the organization that owns and maintains Washington’s stately, colonial-era manse on the banks of the Potomac just southwest of the Nation’s Capital — anticipates that the new library will trigger renewed scholarly study of America’s first president. It will host conferences, seminars, and educational programs available to every student in America via the Internet.
"I’m absolutely thrilled," says philanthropist Gay Hart Gaines, former chairman of the association’s board and a key planner and fundraiser who played an instrumental role in bringing the library to fruition. "It’s so wonderful. The grand opening of the library is now a dream come true."
The library represents the fulfillment of one of Washington’s personal dreams as well.
After enduring humiliating setbacks early in the war, Washington pummeled British Lt. Gen. Edward Cornwallis into submission at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781.
Washington was so popular after that battle, most historians believe, he could have made himself America’s king. Washington, said fellow Virginian "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, was "first in the hearts of his countrymen."
But Washington grew weary of the trappings of office after eight years as commander-in-chief, and in deference to the need to establish democratic traditions, he resigned his office and returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.
Washington harbored one last ambition when he left public life, however.
He confided to a friend that he wanted to build a place "for the accommodation and security of my military, civil, and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting." Not long after he wrote those words, however, Washington contracted a severe chill while inspecting his plantation in a cold downpour, fell sick, and died.
On Friday, some 214 years later, thanks to the generous support of donors, and the Ladies’ Association's staunch commitment to vouchsafing the legacy of the nation’s first president, Washington’s dream of establishing a library has been fulfilled.
As a matter of both tradition and principle, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association accepts no government funding. To build and operate the library, it raised more than $106 million from some 7,000 donors.
Many of them were among the 400 VIP guests who gathered Thursday evening at the mansion’s white-columned piazza for a once-in-a-lifetime reception. A gala dinner was followed by dancing and a memorable fireworks display — revelry that would have delighted Washington, say those who have studied his life.
The ceremony commemorating the grand opening of the museum took place earlier Friday. In addition to McCullough, speakers at Friday morning's grand-opening ceremony included Curtis G. Viebranz, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, who took office about a year ago; Regent Ann Bookout, representing the state of Texas; and Clare Edwards, the vice regent representing Connecticut, who also chaired the Library Task Force.
Grammy-winning artists Amy Grant and Vince Gill also took part in the ceremonies.
The grand opening represents the culmination of more than five years of nonstop planning and fund-raising. The work of the Library Task Force that orchestrated the project was painstaking to the finest detail: The library’s decorative stones were selected to be reminiscent of the buff color that Washington favored in his vest and uniform.
Now that the library is a reality, Gay Hart Gaines, the regent who represents Florida, recalls its dubious beginnings.
She and former Mount Vernon President and CEO James C. Rees IV — who oversaw the preservation of the historic home for 29 years before his retirement in June 2012 — began talking about building a presidential library for the nation’s first president right after Mount Vernon opened its popular, 66,700-square-foot Ford Orientation and Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center.
"We no sooner opened those in 2006 than Jim Rees and I said, 'You know, George Washington wanted a library,'" she recalls.
Rees was concerned the association might not be up to another major fund-raising campaign, so close on the heels of its $60 million expansion.
Gaines and Rees kicked around the idea for a year, and one day Rees said, "I’m going to try to get the seed money. Maybe if I can get that, we can talk everybody into it."
"The long and the short of it," said Gaines, "was we were able to get a large grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation to provide the seed money."
Gaines then persuaded her fellow leaders in the Ladies’ Association to embark on a massive capital campaign.
"It was daunting," Gaines recalls, "because we’d just come off of a capital campaign one year before. But I said this is the time to do it because the education center is so exciting and everybody’s so thrilled with it. And while everybody is so proud of what they did, let’s ask them again."
Friday’s festivities represented the fulfillment of those ambitions.
Other major contributors to the library include Amway co-founder Rich and Helen DeVos; John and Adrienne Mars of the global confection and food-product company that bears their name; and David M. Rubenstein, co-founder of the Carlyle Group.
Gaines says the grand opening "marks a wonderful new beginning for George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon."
The library is designed to reflect Washington’s love of farming and the outdoors, with tall bay windows that allow sunlight and vistas of Northern Virginia landscaping to splash in from every direction. Its state-of-the-art conference and seminar rooms can stream live video presentations across the globe via the Internet.
The library’s priceless artifacts include a diary written in Washington’s own hand; a 1775 letter to wife Martha written just before his departure to lead the American troops at Cambridge; and the first Acts of Congress, including the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The latter volume was acquired from Christie’s at a price of nearly $10 million.
The estate also recently acquired eight more volumes from Washington’s original collection at an auction administered by Sotheby’s.
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The two primary aims of Washington’s new library are to make Mount Vernon the global center of scholarship on America’s indispensable man and to expand the study of Washington’s life and times to schools across the nation around the world.
"We need to grab those kids who aren’t learning American history in school," Gaines explains, "and get them excited about our founding so they understand it really was unique and fabulous."
Gaines sometimes wonders how Washington might react if he were able once again to stride through the doorway of his beloved home in Mount Vernon and gaze around.
Says Gaines: "I think he would say, 'I married Martha Washington because she was a strong, intelligent woman. And I am delighted that you ladies have preserved our Mount Vernon home with such loving care. Today, thanks to your work, Mount Vernon is better than ever.'"
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