The New Room, 2014. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.
In March of 2014, Mount Vernon opened the Mansion’s restored and refurbished New Room. A number of changes were made to the architecture, which deputy director for architecture Tom Reinhart wrote about here, as well as to the room’s furnishings. We had the opportunity to research many aspects of Washington’s “New Room” this year, but three topics form the foundation for our new interpretation:
- the room’s 18th-century name
- how George and Martha Washington used the room
- furnishing the room as a picture gallery
“Distinguished by the Name of the New Room”
Visitors to Mount Vernon in recent years were introduced to the New Room as the “large dining room,” but from the room’s beginnings, it was referred to as the “New Room.” In the agreement for ornamental plasterwork for the room, executed in February 1786 by Tench Tilghman on Washington’s behalf, the room is referred to as “a Certain Room at Mount Vernon … distinguished by the Name of the New Room.”
Of course, the room was unfinished in 1786, so it literally was the “New Room.” However, from the time of construction through the end of his life, the General consistently referred to the space as the “New Room.” A key word search the Washington papers online finds Washington making a total of 27 references to the “New Room,” often capitalized, as a proper name, between 1775 and 1797. Martha Washington also called this space the “new room” in her will, and the executors of both estates call it the “New Room” or the “large room.”
The “Banquet Hall” at Mount Vernon in a 1910 postcard.
Only in later years were more functional names applied, as subsequent generations struggled to make sense of this decidedly 18th-century space. From the 1880s until 1974, the preferred name for the room was the Banquet Hall, a name that evokes the grand houses, lavish entertaining, and ancestral pretensions of America’s late 19th-century elite. In 1981, the room received a new identity, officially re-christened the “Large Dining Room,” a term Washington used rarely.
In Samuel Vaughan’s 1787 presentation drawing of Mount Vernon, he labeled the New Room “Drawing Room 16 feet high.” Learn more about Vaughan’s drawing here.
We know from extensive surviving correspondence that Samuel Vaughan was a key source of information on English architecture and interiors as Washington was decorating Mount Vernon’s north wing in the mid-1780s. Vaughan personally supplied the marble mantel that became the room’s centerpiece, together with English porcelain garniture and a historical painting to ornament the chimney breast. Surely if Washington had intended this space for a dining room, Vaughan is the one person we can expect to have known this. Yet on his 1787 presentation drawing of Mount Vernon, Vaughan clearly labeled the space “Drawing Room” and also noted its unusual height.
View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza, drawn by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1796, ink and watercolor on paper. Purchased with funds provided in part by an anonymous donor, 2013 [W-5307]
Eighteenth-century visitors to Mount Vernon used a variety of terms for the Mansion’s north wing, suggesting a focus on its form, as well as a fluid, multi-purpose functionality. Samuel Powel of Philadelphia called the north wing simply “a magnificent Room”; Joshua Brookes, an English visitor, called it “the drawing room”; and Polish nobleman Julian Niemcewicz called it “a large salon.” Only English architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe called it “a good dining room,” and his professional training and familiarity with the recent fashion for adding large formal dining rooms onto English country houses may have colored his vision.
Photograph by Renée Comet.
First and foremost, the north wing functioned as a necessary architectural element, maintaining the formal symmetry required of any self-respecting Georgian mansion house. From this standpoint, the New Room’s function was arguably secondary to its form; what mattered most was simply that Mount Vernon’s north wing existed, balancing the south wing (whose spaces answered the Washingtons’ practical needs for a more private bedchamber and study).
That being said, it is hard to imagine the eminently practical George Washington not putting such a large space to some purpose—be it practical, social, or symbolic.
The 18th-century saloon at Saltram House near Plymouth, England, was designed by Robert Adam circa 1768. It features green walls, a high coved ceiling, densely hung artwork, and a carved mantelpiece, which faces a Palladian window (not shown).
The New Room clearly served as a “show room” or statement room, in the tradition of grand saloons in 18th-century British country houses. A saloon was defined less by practical functions than by formal characteristics—notably great volume and height exceeding that of surrounding rooms and a strict adherence to symmetry—characteristics that combined to make these spaces feel out-of-the-ordinary.
The New Room seen from the door to the Little Parlor. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.
Like saloons in grander English houses, the New Room could be pressed into service as a dining room when circumstances warranted, as when large numbers of guests or guests of high rank needed to be entertained. Analysis of Washington’s diaries between 1797 and 1799 suggests the Washingtons rarely had more than ten dinner guests, the number that would likely have fit comfortably in what we call the small dining room. Notably, George Washington’s 1799 probate inventory does not list any dining tables in the New Room; the only two dining tables listed in the Mansion are those located in the small dining room.
Symmetry on the New Room’s north wall. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.
In line with the shift in interpretation from dining room to New Room, the new installation highlights the formal qualities of the space and its multi-purpose character. One of the most striking aspects of the inventory for this room is a strong sense of symmetry. Virtually every item has a counterpart—two large looking glasses, two sideboards, two candle stands, two pairs of John Trumbull’s Revolutionary War prints, two religious pictures, even two copies of a popular British print, The Dead Soldier.
The New Room as a Picture Gallery
In addition to highlighting that symmetry, the new installation showcases the room’s function as a picture gallery—a function echoing the furnishing of English saloons, and one certainly encouraged by the marvelous north light admitted by the Palladian window. The New Room’s function as a picture gallery is the room use for which we have the strongest and most concrete evidence—not only the documentary evidence of the inventory, but also physical evidence of the surviving works of art. Unlike dining equipment, the art works were there all of the time. If the room was sometimes a dining room, it was always a picture gallery, at least after the Washingtons returned from Philadelphia in March 1797.
Landscape paintings, religious pastels, and popular prints on the New Room’s south wall. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.
The inventory lists a total of 21 pictures in this space—most in impressive and expensive gilt frames and all but two acquired by Washington after the beginning of his presidency. By the standards of the day, Washington’s art collection was an extraordinary one. With its seven large landscapes, it was effectively the earliest gallery of landscape paintings in America. Washington’s collection also gave prominent place to American subjects: the landscapes that celebrated the beauty, power, and potential of America’s natural resources, four engravings by John Trumbull that captured the dramatic moments in the United States’ war for independence, and a cabinet-style portrait of America’s first commander in chief, Washington at Verplanck’s Point by John Trumbull. For visitors to Mount Vernon in Washington’s day, the collection testified to Washington’s pride in the new nation and his hopes and dreams for its future.
With the New Room’s reopening, there are now twenty pictures on view, including at least seven of Washington’s original paintings, his two original pastels, and five of his original prints.
The New Room’s east wall. Photograph by Gavin Ashworth.
As visitors enter the room from the west door, they see the east wall, highlighted by a much denser display of framed artworks and new window treatments. The new arrangement of artwork is what is known as a “salon-style hang,” which means that artworks are hung floor-to-ceiling, often in vertical columns, creating a massed effect. Salon-style hangs were typical of installations in 18th-century English country houses, and are well documented in paintings and prints of the period.
For conservation reasons, several of the original Washington artworks will only be on view in the New Room through Memorial Day. For the present moment though, visitors can see the most accurate and comprehensive furnishing of the room since the Washingtons walked these floors. The recovered drama and beauty of the New Room helps us to understand what fueled the imaginations of the Washingtons and their guests, and to more fully appreciate his understanding of himself and his vision for America.
Susan P. Schoelwer, Robert H. Smith Senior Curator