Mount Vernon has survived some of the toughest chapters in U.S. history, and since just a few years before the Civil War to today, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association (MVLA) has ensured that the first president’s home weathers each storm to continue its work inspiring and educating Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is the first time in the Association’s history that the estate experienced a complete and extended closure that will no doubt have lasting repercussions. While donors make up a vital portion of the funding for the MVLA, its main source of income has been, and continues to be, from visitation. A loss or decline in ticket sales often spells trouble. The estate’s financial health is inextricably linked to the U.S. economy and national events.
The past offers context and clues to the best way to handle the current situation. How did the MVLA respond and overcome previous world-shattering events? The obvious correlation between the Spanish flu in 1918 and COVID-19 today actually provides few similarities in terms of Mount Vernon’s response. The month of October 1918 saw the highest number of flu cases and related deaths in the Washington, D.C., area, but the only mention of the disease in Superintendent Harrison Dodge’s monthly report concerned an unusually large number of ill employees and the cancellation of the steamboat service. The estate did not close to the public, and by November, Dodge reported an increase in the number of visitors due to pleasant weather. Other national crises had more noteworthy effects on Mount Vernon and demonstrated how the MVLA adapted and evolved through the most difficult of circumstances.
Soldiers at Mount Vernon, from a sketch by A.R. Waud, The New York Illustrated News, December 16, 1861 (MVLA)
Roughly a year after the MVLA made its final payments to John Augustine Washington III and moved into the Mansion, the United States entered into the Civil War. Two employees, a secretary, Sarah Tracy, and Superintendent Upton Herbert, lived on the estate as MVLA representatives, and cared for the property during the four-year conflict. Mount Vernon’s precarious position near the border of the Union and the Confederacy instigated urgent negotiations with both sides to maintain the estate’s neutrality and protect it from looting or destruction. While visitors occasionally stopped at Mount Vernon to pay their respects to the founding father, the low numbers did not yield the funding originally expected. And when the U.S. government canceled all civilian boat traffic on the Potomac River due to safety concerns—including the steamboat service carrying the majority of Mount Vernon’s tourists—the staff was forced to halt most of its restoration and repair work. To supplement the cash shortage, staff sold milk and bouquets of flowers, lived mainly off food produced on the estate, and saved the money forwarded by Vice Regents for urgent needs.
After the war ended, hard times continued. Although the Association outwardly prided itself on not siding with the North or the South to maintain good relations, intense division existed between some Vice Regents. Several Ladies left the MVLA during the war years and shortly after. Mount Vernon still suffered from money problems, and a contingent of Vice Regents advocated for handing the property over to the federal government. MVLA founder Ann Pamela Cunningham and others were opposed to the move, arguing it was much too early to give up. Mount Vernon’s attendance numbers and income remained unsteady throughout the 1870s. The Vice Regents donated their own money toward much of the estate’s needs and began an endowment fund to prepare for the future. By the late 19th century, steamboat service was regular, a new rail trolley ran from Washington, D.C., to the gates of Mount Vernon, sales of souvenir items flourished, and the Association began to experience its first period of stability. It could now focus its efforts on preservation projects and the collection of Washington relics.
Opening: Sarah Tracy (MVLA)
Above: Secretary and caretaker Sarah Tracy (far left) and resident superintendent Upton Herbert (far right) in front of Mount Vernon, ca. 1868 (MVLA)
When the war began, Mount Vernon was positioned firmly between Union and Confederacy lines. As Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association founder Ann Pamela Cunningham was unable to return to Mount Vernon, she entrusted the Mansion’s care to her secretary, Sarah Tracy, and Superintendent Upton Herbert. As a New Yorker, Sarah Tracy was able to negotiate with officials in Washington to secure passes for travel into Alexandria for supplies. As a Virginian, Upton Herbert was able to negotiate with the Confederacy.
The MVLA anticipated celebrations and prosperity for the early 1930s. Mount Vernon joined the U.S. George Washington Bicentennial Commission in planning events, parties, and parades to honor the first president’s milestone birthday in 1932. The new George Washington Memorial Parkway, a 25-mile-long highway ending at the entrance to Mount Vernon, was completed in 1932 and greatly improved automobile access to the estate. This alone should have increased ticket sales. The Great Depression, however, touched all but the wealthiest families in the country and left millions destitute.
The “great reduction in number of visitors”—down 50,000 from the previous year—noted by Superintendent Harrison Dodge in his annual report for 1931 did not grow significantly for several years. In 1933, there were dashed hopes of an increase in visitation. Dodge remarked, “I was warned to prepare for the coming of multitudes of tourists and to increase our guards… The optimistic estimates failed to materialize, unquestionably because of the universal business depression; thus was our hope for abundant revenue disappointed.” The Association was once again forced to decrease upcoming projects, postpone costly repairs, and eliminate purchases of Washington artifacts for the coming years. It cut staff salaries by 15 percent and eliminated or furloughed four employees. Succumbing to the pressure and necessity of circumstances, the Regent decided in 1934 to open the estate on Sundays, beginning the tradition of having the estate open 365 days a year. And just as Mount Vernon began to recover and reported in the 1936 Council Minutes “the largest number of visitors to the Shrine ever before recorded,” the world entered into war.
President Herbert Hoover (third from right) visits Mount Vernon for the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Also visible are Superintendent Harrison Dodge (center) and Mrs. Lou Henry Hoover (second from right), February 22, 1932. (MVLA)
President Hoover addressing the crowd from Mount Vernon’s piazza for the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birth, February 22, 1932 (MVLA)
By the spring of 1942, with the United States fully entrenched in World War II, government rationing of gasoline and tires began to affect visits to Mount Vernon. The bus service was discontinued in June, and city taxis were limited to a specific radius, preventing most of them from venturing out of the District. Boat service brought only small crowds, and visitation numbers once again plummeted. In June 1943, the number of visitors was 97 percent lower than the average of the same month for the five previous years. Between May 1942 and May 1943, Mount Vernon recorded only 197,735 paid admissions, down from 765,000 the year before. Due to limits on travel, the Governor’s Board of Visitors canceled its trip to the estate for three consecutive years. Visits from military service members (who were allowed onto the grounds free of charge) increased, however, accounting for 25 percent of all visitors during the war.
Strict food rations also affected the staff and the MVLA Board. To address some of the needs, Mount Vernon greatly expanded the amount of food grown on its grounds. Fruits and vegetables were given to employees and used for the Board’s meals during its biannual meeting. Field crops of wheat, rye, oats, and hay were cultivated for the first time in years. Other menu items were nevertheless hard to come by, leading the resident director, Charles Wall, to apply to the Office of Price Administration for special allowances of meat, fats, sugar, and canned goods to use at Council in 1945. Staff furloughs or layoffs were unnecessary, however, as Mount Vernon instead suffered a shortage of important personnel. The MVLA employed 75 people before the war, but that number fell to 50 by 1943. Several men enlisted or were drafted into service, while others sought higher paying positions in booming defense-related industries. For the first time in its history, the Association hired “women attendants” to take the place of male Mansion guards. All employees assisted with blackout drills and emergency preparedness, which included moving some of the valuable collections to more secure spaces. World War II impacted every aspect of business at Mount Vernon. As Charles Wall stated in his 1943 report to the Vice Regents, “[T]he events, activities, and problems of the fiscal year just ended have, almost without exception, been influenced or determined by the war.”
Top: Crowd gathered for Mount Vernon’s first free day for Washington’s birthday, February 1942 (MVLA)
To lift spirits during the war, the Association initiated the tradition of providing free admission to the estate on George Washington’s birthday, a tradition that continues today.
Above: Blue and Grey Line Tours bus dropping off passengers, 1937 (MVLA)
Left: Article from Northern Virginia Shoppers’ Journal, 1942 (MVLA)
Mount Vernon experienced several years of growth in the years leading up to September 11, 2001. The Pioneer Farm opened in the late 1990s and allowed for new programs and events. The bicentennial commemoration of Washington’s death in 1999 included an acclaimed reenactment of his funeral and a new traveling exhibit, Treasures from Mount Vernon. A newly established capital campaign was underway to fund the construction of an orientation center, education center, and museum.
But the traumatic events of 9/11 brought the entire country to a standstill. The Regent, Ellen Walton, summed up the feelings of many American citizens in her report to Council that October, saying, “Nothing in our lives could ever have prepared us for the devastating events of September 11, 2001. In our grief and shock we are changed forever and are called on to discern what is truly most important in our lives.” The estate closed only for the day, but September and October attendance numbers declined by 43 percent from the previous year. Almost all student group trips to Mount Vernon were canceled, along with fundraising and promotional events scheduled for the fall and winter. Like many other institutions, Mount Vernon boosted security measures.
The MVLA Board and management took immediate action to minimize impact to the estate. All job openings and salaries were frozen, nonessential purchases and travel were canceled, and long-term projects were put on hold, aside from planning for the new facilities. Admission prices were also raised, partly justified by the addition of the Gristmill to the visitor experience. There was some concern over foundation prospects for sponsoring the education center and museum, as many companies or organizations were diverting money to New York for recovery efforts or had lost money themselves in the aftermath of September 11.
While Mount Vernon did suffer financially, it bounced back more quickly than expected. A sense of patriotism and unity spread over the nation, and George Washington’s home benefited from its status as a historic American landmark. A year later, in 2002, the MVLA’s Finance Committee reported that the estate was “performing better overall than the adjusted budget prepared after 9/11.” The Regent credited personnel, saying, “[T]he true nature of people comes through at such a time and the character of the Mount Vernon staff and employees shone.”
Periods of crisis force difficult decisions and radical change. It often took Mount Vernon years to fully recover from major national tragedies, but the lessons learned and adaptations made always created a stronger and more resilient institution. Just as 9/11 made the staff more security conscious, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an improvement of digital capability. Through social media and digital resources, the MVLA continues the education piece of its mission even without the ability to welcome visitors to the estate. The tools used and experiences gained during this most recent setback, like those from previous crises, are invaluable to the path forward.
Rebecca Baird is the archivist of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Event sponsored by WorldStrides Educational Travel & Experiences to promote travel to the Washington, D.C., area, 2002 (Photo by Capitol Memories)