Going Lanphier was a house joiner and carpenter from Alexandria who George Washington hired to complete various projects at Mount Vernon in the 1750s and 1770s. Washington first enlisted Lanphier’s services in 1759 to construct a new staircase for the Mansion. Washington’s correspondence with Lanphier and others suggest this project was completed with minimal complications. Unfortunately, Lanphier became more challenging to work with during later construction projects.
Going Lanphier’s signature.
Washington’s position as commander-in-chief during the Revolutionary War prevented him from directly overseeing the affairs of his estate. To cope with his absence, Washington commissioned his distant cousin and plantation manager, Lund Washington, to supervise these projects. According to Lund, Going Lanphier was hired in 1773 to extend the southern end of the Mansion by adding a bedroom and a library to the upper and lower levels, respectively. (Today, we call these rooms the Washington or Master Bedchamber and the Study.) Lund’s letters to Washington during this period reveal the former experienced quite a few difficulties with the carpenter.
This drawing shows the planned locations for Washington’s new bedroom, library, and dining room on the north and south ends of the Mansion.
In addition to his work on the Mansion, Lanphier “promised to[…]immediately” fix a few broken spinning wheels at Lund’s request. The wheels were sent to Lanphier for repair in the early summer; however, on September 29, Lund reported that he had to send the wheels elsewhere because Lanphier now refused to make the necessary repairs. Two months later, Lund complained that whenever he attempted to discuss the status of the study, Lanphier “mouths & talks in such a way that I do not understand him.” Evidently, Lanphier’s descriptions were so full of vague excuses and technical jargon Lund was consistently unable to gauge the progress of the addition.
Two spinning wheels on view in the Spinning House at Mount Vernon.
Despite these difficulties, a shortage of skilled craftsman and the daunting task of finishing the New Room forced Lund to once again enlist Lanphier’s services. Lanphier’s unreliable nature made itself even more apparent during this project. In 1777, Lund credited Lanphier’s “man” with “3 months and 8 days” of steady work, while Lanphier himself only worked “16 Days” during this period. This deplorable work ethic evidently continued, for a year later Lund wrote, “Of all the worthless men living Lanphier is the greatest, no act or temptation of mine can prevail on him to come to work notwithstanding his repeated promises to do so.”
In an October 1773 letter to Washington, Lanphier requested the following building materials: “4370 feet of Inh & half plank for Weather Boarding, 880 Do. [dozen] of Inh & Quarter Do. for Dowall floor: Each plank to be 22 feet Long full, 1760 Do. of Do.__Do. for the South End having two floors, 500 Do. of two Inh Do. for Doors &c., 500 Do. of Inh & half Do. for Windows, — Do. of Inh Do. already provided”
Lanphier’s apparent obedience in 1759 and obvious inadequacy in later projects may be attributed to George Washington’s absence. In a letter to Brian Fairfax from July 4, 1774, Washington wrotem, “I think (perhaps it is fancy)” the construction of the Mansion’s additions “goes on better whilst I am present, than in my absence from the workmen.” The change in Lanphier’s professionalism suggests Washington was not at all fanciful—his presence truly did inspire compliance in his workmen.
Brittany Higgs, Intern, Historic Preservation & Collections