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Meet George Washington at Mount Vernon

  • Story Highlights
  • Today Mount Vernon's annual attendance matches its highest since 1976
  • Three new life-size models depict George Washington at different ages
  • Visitors can explore the distillery, gristmill and a reconstructed slave structure
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By Gary D. Ford / Annette Thompson
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Southern Living

(Southern Living) -- Mount Vernon is undergoing a renaissance. Today the site's annual attendance matches its highest since 1976. Why? Visitors used to spend only an hour or so at his house, then leave still thinking of George Washington as that grim, old man on the dollar bill. Now, visitors meet him face-to-face in three life-sized statues, and they can't get enough of America's first action hero.

At the museum at Mount Vernon, the 45-year-old future president is depicted riding in Valley Forge.

At the museum at Mount Vernon, the 45-year-old future president is depicted riding in Valley Forge.

"He's tall! He's strong! He's handsome!" they may exclaim when seeing him for the first time. Today's first President is a well-rounded figure at the expanded visitors center, museum, and education facility at Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens in Virginia.

A new face for George

Washington now startles visitors. As they walk through the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, one of three life-size models depicts him at age 19, standing 6'2", with his auburn hair pulled back in a queue. He's lean and lanky like an athlete, with muscular hips and thighs -- the marks of a man comfortable in the saddle. SouthernLiving.com: D.C. Travel Planner

"He was the best horseman in America," James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, remarks. "He was a great architect and landscape designer, and a terrific ball room dancer."

Washington seems alive, except for breath itself. Step around another museum corner and he appears at 45 astride his horse in the snow at Valley Forge. Down another corridor he takes the oath of office at 57.

More than mere mannequins, these figures are based on forensic research. To piece the elements together, scientists sized Washington up with measurements of his breeches and waistcoat. They determined the jut of his jaw from his dentures. They analyzed locks of his hair to determine its color at various ages.

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Getting to know the man

Admirers esteem his intellect, compassion, and self-restraint. (He was the only Founding Father to free his slaves.) After winning the Revolutionary War, Washington could have crowned himself king. Instead of reigning, however, he resigned and went home.

Visitors tour the home, stopping to marvel at the stately main hall and gliding their hands along the same banister that supported the likes of the Marquis de Lafayette. They crowd into upstairs halls to see bedrooms that hosted more than 700 guests each year in George and Martha's time. SouthernLiving.com: Come Home to Virginia

Then they explore the estate with its 18th-century sights, sounds, and scents. The distillery and gristmill are now open, and a reconstructed slave structure tells the African American story. There's more to come. This spring, bellows will breathe fire to life in the new blacksmith shop.

Meanwhile, the orientation center and museum are close at hand yet hidden, tucked into the earth so they don't interfere with the historic landscape.

He who would not be king

It's working. Washington is undergoing a renaissance.

"King George III told an associate that if Washington gave up all his power and went back to his farm, he would be the greatest man in the world," James remarks. "That's like the Dallas Cowboys coach saying something nice about the Redskins."

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