"It's just as I remember it," said George Washington as he strode into the largest and most ornate room of his home at Mount Vernon on Friday.
The first U.S. president surveyed the results of a 14-month, $600,000 restoration that removed the dining table from the space and re-interpreted the room as more of a multipurpose grand salon: a slightly softer green paint color, a more complete reproduction of the 18th-century wallpaper border and walls lined gallery-style with landscape paintings and portraits. "It is magnificent," said Washington, portrayed by actor Dean Malissa for a press preview. The completed space officially opened to the public March 22.
"This is the largest and most impressive room in the house and the most memorable," says Susan Schoelwer, curator at Mount Vernon. "It's the first room in the house people enter on their visit to Mount Vernon and certainly the most distinctive." She calls it "an American masterpiece."
The unveiling of this "New Room," which is how George and Martha Washington referred to the two-story space, showcases the work of more than 100 professionals, including paint conservators, wood graining specialists, curators of historic interiors and silversmiths. They collaborated to change the presentation of the room to reflect new research and employ technological advances. Visitors to Mount Vernon will remember that the grand space with its dramatic Palladian window, identified as the "Large Dining Room" since 1981, had been furnished with a long table usually set for a formal meal.
"We discovered this was really more of a reception room where people could gather," Schoelwer says. "Each generation uses new tools and new research to document the mansion. We continually try to present as accurate a picture of the past as possible."
Now the chairs line the walls, which are covered floor-to-ceiling with artwork. The eye is drawn up to appreciate the architectural details, including the graceful cove between the walls and the ceiling, now whitewashed instead of painted green. Although documents suggest that the room was occasionally set for large dinner parties, Mount Vernon's curators and historians have concluded that the space was more of a statement room that reflected Washington's stature and taste.
For the first time in more than 200 years, 20 of the 21 pictures that were believed to hang in this room during Washington's lifetime are displayed; some are originals and some are period copies.
Other objects in the room, including looking glasses, silver-plated lamps and the marble mantel, were also studied and cleaned.
Research continues to uncover surprises in the mansion, which was bought by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association in 1858 and which attracts about a million visitors a year.
During their recent efforts, conservators discovered that one of three 18th-century porcelain vases displayed on the mantel matched a small porcelain gilt handle uncovered in archaeological digs outside the mansion in 1994. They determined that the piece had broken off this vase, and they were able to carefully mend the handle back to its original spot.