Mount Vernon

By the 1850s, George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located on the Virginia side of the Potomac River downstream from the District of Columbia, had fallen into disrepair. At the time, the federal government did not consider the maintenance of such historical sites to be within its proper purview, so a group calling itself Mount Vernon Ladies Association got together, purchased the property, and saved it from ruin. This self-perpetuating organization still exists and still runs Mount Vernon as an attraction; I can attest that they do a mighty fine job of it. The Palladian mansion, which Washington kept adding to, is what everyone has come to see, but of course a plantation was its own self-contained economy, with outbuildings devoted to all sorts of functions, including blacksmithing, butchery, food storage, distilling, tool storage, clothmaking, defecation (“the necessary”), and housing workers, including enslaved ones. These are staffed by interpreters in period costume, and you could easily spend an entire day here wandering around.

Photo: Susanna Good

The recently-built Museum and Education Center outlines Washington’s career, and has an interesting array of objects on display, including the sole surviving complete set of Washington’s dentures (none of which, by the way, was made of wood).

Photo: Susanna Good

The Museum also features an exhibit entitled “Lives Bound Together: Slavery at Washington’s Mount Vernon,” a necessary exposure of this most unsavory fact of American history. Yes, Mount Vernon was largely powered by slaves, who were about three hundred in number by the time of Washington’s death. It’s true that Washington ordered his own slaves to be freed upon the death of his widow Martha Custis Washington, and she herself freed them earlier than that, but the forty or so rented slaves had to be returned to their owner, and upon Martha’s death the slaves belonging to the Custis estate descended to her children by her first marriage – she could not have freed them even if she had wanted to. The museum notes that by the end of his life Washington disliked slavery, and hoped that it would die out eventually, but it also notes that he was rather parsimonious in providing for them, and had no problem chasing down those who ran away. Perhaps it is no surprise that John Augustine Washington III, the President’s great grand nephew and the last private owner of Mount Vernon, sided with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

But despite all this, one cannot help but admire Washington’s career. He was born to modest privilege but still had to make something of himself, which he did by virtue of hard work, self-cultivation, a prudent marriage alliance, calculated risk-taking, and a little luck. That he resigned his command of the Continental Army, rather than seize power, is remarkable; that he presided over the Constitutional Convention, served two terms as president, and then gracefully retired again, is almost miraculous. The American Cincinnatus really did establish a powerful precedent, to the admiration all who value the republican nature of the United States.

But on the whole I was curious to note how un-American Washington was – or rather, how America has evolved beyond Washington’s own way of life. When we think of America, we think of the log cabin on the frontier, not the manor house. Running a plantation, in any case, seems like constant work – it’s not something you own, but something that owns you (even though, I suppose, it’s a big reason why Washington retired twice – he wanted to get back to his “real” job).

Chartres Cathedral Restoration

From the Guardian:

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US architecture critic sparks row over Chartres Cathedral restoration

Martin Filler accuses project boss of desecration, but Patrice Calvel says he is just ‘doing a bit of vacuuming’

Chartres Cathedral in France is an awe-inspiring sight, renowned in particular for its medieval stained glass windows and stone carvings.

When the American architecture critic Martin Filler and his wife, the architectural historian Rosemarie Haag Bletter, visited the country recently they decided to view the progress of an eight-year restoration project at the Unesco world heritage site, 50 miles southwest of Paris. Its soaring interior is being cleansed of centuries of pollution and grime from candles and oil lamps.

But their visit has caused an extraordinary row, with Filler accusing the project’s architect, Patrice Calvel, of a cultural desecration akin to “adding arms to the Venus de Milo”. Calvel has hit back, telling the Guardian that the work on the 800-year-old cathedral “is not taken on lightly to satisfy the fantasies of a few”.

Filler and his wife, Rosemarie Haag Bletter, an architectural historian, were so horrified by what they saw that he denounced the “scandalous” makeover in his blog on the New York Review of Books website.

The searing criticism followed an article in Le Figaro that described the cleaning as similar to “watching a film in a cinema where they haven’t switched off the lights”.

Filler’s main complaint is that the €15m (£11.7m) state-run makeover, which began in 2009, set out “to do no less than repaint the entire interior in bright whites and garish colors that are intended to return the sanctuary to its medieval state”.

He singled out the cathedral’s historic Black Madonna, whose “repainting” had “transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll”.

Filler called for the “foolhardy” project to be reversed.

In Chartres, the head of the project’s private fundraising arm expressed alarm at the possible impact of the article on international public opinion.

“What will be the effect on our sister organisation in the United States, which is raising money to restore stained glass windows that are to be displayed in the US?” asked Chartres Sanctuaire du Monde’s Caroline Berthod-Bonnet. The non-profit organisations are raising money from private sources to support the restoration, which is mainly funded by the French state, regional authorities and the European Union.

Calvel, the architect in chief of the French culture ministry’s historical monuments division, who oversaw the project until retiring from the civil service two years ago, vigorously defended the restoration. “It has the full weight of the administration of state, historians and architects who decided over a 20-year period what would be done.”

He stressed that there was no repainting over more than 80% of the cathedral interior, which has now been revealed in its original colours dating from 1220-30.

“All I’ve done is a bit of vacuum cleaning,” he said, adding that he did not know Filler and noted that two US experts on the advisory board of the American Friends of Chartres Cathedral had responded to the “misinformed” criticism.

In their contribution to the New York Review of Books – which prompted a rebuttal by Filler – Professors Madeline Caviness and Jeffrey Hamburger defended the “careful and historically responsible renovation”.

“I’m serene,” Calvel said. “I’ve got an entire scholastic community behind me.”

As for the criticism in Le Figaro, Calvel said he would not respond to the writer “because he has no competence in this matter”.

Calvel and Berthod-Bonnet acknowledged that the cleaning of the Black Madonna had been controversial. “There’s been some shock,” said Berthod-Bonnet. But Calvel said any major restoration was likely to provoke criticism from some quarters.

Asked whether the parishioners had been consulted, he said: “I’m very democratic, but the public is not competent to judge.”

He said the project had first been explained through the initial restoration of a chapel, “and people were delighted”.

British historic interiors conservator Helen Hughes said that the “top down” French approach to restoration contrasted with procedures in the UK, where users were routinely consulted. During a recent tour of historic interiors in France, Hughes said, she “noticed that conservators talked about the state rather than the involvement of taxpayers and stakeholders”.

Meanwhile, Calvel’s research has proved that the exterior of Chartres Cathedral was also painted in the 13th century, in the same colours as the interior. In medieval times, “everything was painted”, mainly for protection from the elements, he said.

“But if we tried to do that on the outside I would be hanged.”