Throughout the year, we’re featuring the many folks involved in the New Room’s restoration and their roles in the project. Today, we interview Susan Schoelwer, Mount Vernon’s Curator.
Hello, Susan! Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell me about your job at Mount Vernon and your role in the New Room project?
As curator here at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, I oversee all of the fine and decorative arts collections: paintings, furniture, ceramics, glass, prints, and so forth. In the New Room project, my role is overseeing and coordinating the furnishing plan and what will go back into the room after we finish the architectural restoration.
What is the story that we want to tell in the room? What is the evidence for how the room was furnished in Washington’s time, and for how it was used? People today, in the wake of Frank Lloyd Wright’s dictum that “form follows function,” everybody wants to know, what did they do in the room?
Susan Schoelwer on the East Lawn at Mount Vernon.
You’ve written about new research on the ways the room was used. What do you think is the biggest thing we’ve learned in this project?
I think the biggest shift is stepping away from thinking about it as a “large dining room.” If you look back into the history of the interpretation of the room, this idea seems to have come into its own during the 20th century. When it was first open to the public, it was called the New York Room and it was a relic room. Then it started being called the Banquet Room, which is consistent with late 19th, early 20th-century ideas about dining. You would have these big, baronial dining tables spread out in the mansions of Fifth Avenue or Newport. Then in the 20th century, interpretation shifts toward calling it the Large Dining Room. I think that shift really marks a move toward domesticating Washington. The dining room is a concept that 20th-century people understand. It’s not so clear that that was the way that the Washingtons understood this space.
Our goal is to interpret the mansion and the estate to 1799, the year of George Washington’s death, and the culminating point of his vision for the estate. It’s important to look at how the Washingtons talked about the room and what activities we can concretely position in that room.
Our founding document for furnishing the house for the past half-century has been George Washington’s probate inventory, taken in 1799. What do they call the room in the probate inventory? The New Room. If you go to Washington’s papers, which are now digitized, you can do a keyword search and find Washington specifically refers to this room in his writing something like 22 times, and 21 of those times he calls it the New Room! It seems very clear to me that that’s his name for it. It evokes names for rooms given in English country houses or even in the White House—where you have the Red Room, the Green Room, the Oval Room. These are rooms that are identified by form or appearance or architectural characteristics, not by function.
Where does the name “Large Dining Room” come from? You do see it cropping up in a handful of late 18th-century descriptions of Mount Vernon, but those references are from people like Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who is a British architect. He’s seen the latest in English country houses, where by the late 18th century, people are adding large formal dining rooms with large formal, permanently in place tables. If they have an existing house, they may add large formal dining rooms on to the end of the house, in the same way the New Room is added on to the end of Mount Vernon. But that’s what’s happening in England in the 1780s and 1790s. Washington builds this room in Virginia, in 1775.
I think that the Large Dining Room is an interpretation that we have placed on the space because we understand it and it gives us a chance to put out the dining table and some of the wonderful Washington china. But looking at the evidence from the period, the room isn’t fully furnished until after the Washingtons come back from the presidency and most of the furnishings, prints, and paintings that are in the room are either acquired during the presidency or even after they’ve returned to Mount Vernon. With a handful of exceptions, the room is new again in 1797. And there is no documentation for a purchase of a dining table at this time.
The next question is, between 1797 and 1799, how often did they have large dinner parties? Jessie MacLeod has done the research, and from what we can tell from Washington’s diaries, there are only a couple dozen times in those three years that they have more than ten people to dinner. I think only on those occasions when they had more people or when they had a very formal, important guest like the British minister, perhaps then they moved into the New Room and used it as a dining room. That would have been very much in the tradition of these great rooms in an English country house, that it would be a multipurpose room that you might use for conversation, you might use it for an art gallery, and you might use it for dining on occasion, but not in the sense that we think of as a dining room today.
Susan holds up a cornice board above a window in the New Room as part of the investigation of possible window treatments.
How does this change in interpretation affect the way the room will be furnished?
We will not have a dining table set up all year round. In light of the Washingtons’ occasional use, I think we will put up the dining table for the holiday season—it’s a festive time and we know the Washingtons entertained at that time of year.
We will be focusing a lot more on the room’s use as a picture gallery. We know Washington brought back several paintings that he acquired during the presidency and we have six of the seven landscape paintings that he had. We have increased the number of pictures that we will show in the room based on what’s listed in the inventory, and we’re hanging those in a more conspicuous salon-style hang, as you see in illustrations of 18th-century rooms and picture galleries in England. I think that that function will be more evident to people as they step into the room.
We’re not putting a dining table back in the room because one doesn’t appear on the probate inventory taken in 1799. But the probate inventory does list many chairs. Why so many chairs if there was no table?
That’s actually not so surprising for an 18th century-formal room. Not only is there no dining table listed in the room, but there are no tables listed at all. There are two sideboards, 21 pictures, two candlestands, two fire screens, 27 chairs, and a number of what are described as images, which refer to bisque porcelain figures that Washington acquired during the presidency. When you think about that furniture, it all has a very sculptural quality. The sideboards are something that, yes, could be used as serving pieces, but they were definitely used for display surfaces where you put out special ornamental items.
The chairs, in 18th-century fashion, would have been arranged around the walls of the room when you weren’t using them. If you had people in the room and you were using them, you would pull them out and arrange them into groupings, but that tradition of furniture being placed around the walls of rooms and being brought into use only when needed is very typical of the 18th century. You don’t see the room set up in the way that we do in the 19th century or as we think of a living room today, with a grouping of sofas and a coffee table in front of the fireplace. You would not see that in an 18th-century room.
You’d just set it up when you were going to use it.
Exactly. The Washingtons kept to that tradition. There’s no evidence of them acquiring a long, permanently set-up pedestal dining table. They apparently continued to use the two square dining tables that they had gotten back in the 1750s or 60s, which could be moved around and put up in whatever room you wanted them to be, and probably could seat eight people individually, or if you put them together, 12 to 16 people. That’s very much in the tradition of the 18th century—setting up a table when and where you needed it.
I think one of the concerns with this change is that if you come into this room and there’s no dining table, to our eyes it may look a bit bare. It’s a big room. But this is a place where we really have to shift what we’re thinking to get into an 18th-century mindset. First of all, in the 18th century, you would have never entered directly into this space. You would have moved through a progression of increasingly more formal spaces. If you read visitors’ accounts of people who are coming to see Washington—not people who know him but people who have a letter of introduction and come to see him—it’s clear that they’re met at the front door and they’re ushered into the central passage and they might wait there for a bit. Or they might be shown to the little parlor, the less formal sitting room, where they might wait for someone of the family or one of Washington’s secretaries to greet them. Then they would be given a tour—they went into the west parlor, which is the more formal of the two parlors, and only then did they open the door and go into the New Room.
The central passage, the west parlor, although very nice rooms, are very much in line with rooms in other gentry houses of the period. Imagine then opening the door and walking into this grand soaring space. You’re facing that Palladian window looking out toward the north, and you see the views to either side. I think it’s a totally different experience if you’re coming through that progression of rooms. That’s the mindset we have to have, we have to fit ourselves into the house, not expect the house to fit our 21st-century expectations.
The New Room’s Palladian window is visible through the door in the west parlor.
I know you’ve done a lot of research on Martha Washington and her role in the house. How does she fit into the New Room?
That’s a good question. It’s harder to fit Martha into the New Room than it is some of the other spaces in the house. Certainly when we look at those few occasions where they do have large numbers of guests or formal dinner parties, she’s clearly the hostess and smoothing the edges of the socializing. When people come to visit, it’s pretty clear, and other people have made this comment, that she is the one who’s really doing the heavy lifting in terms of greeting people and chatting with them for half an hour or so before the general shows up from his afternoon ride or is ready for dinner or comes out from his study where he’s been working on his correspondence. But I don’t think too many references place that going on in the New Room. That seems to be more in the little parlor or they conversed after dinner in the west parlor or they spent the afternoon on the piazza. In that sense, it does seem to be very much his space and his vision. As a women’s historian, I wish I could come up with something a little more concrete.
Would you contrast that with another space in the house that really does seem to be her domain?
The Washington bedchamber is clearly the room that really stands out as her space. It’s interesting that it’s another bright, light, airy space. I associate it with her doing needlework because it has better light than anywhere else in the house. I think certainly in the dining room, she would preside over the meals and be the hostess. In some of the work zones, like the kitchen, she directed what was going on, even if she didn’t do the cooking directly. In the little parlor it’s pretty clear that some casual afternoon socializing went on in there. There may well be a gender division of the house that we haven’t really sussed out yet.
The Washington bedchamber.
It’s interesting because the New Room is in its own wing of the house and you could very much see it not even being entered or used if there wasn’t a guest or a reason. Maybe it wasn’t part of daily life.
I think it was very much a showplace. I don’t think it was part of daily life. Just like parlors in the 19th century, there was the front room that you kept sacrosanct. With those double doors going from the West Parlor to the New Room, it was like opening a secret world! It was another zone. I don’t have the sense that it was part of the daily life.
Not having a lot of evidence of Martha being in there, or the family—Nelly and Washy—being in there, then that emphasizes the fact that it was a special place.
Yes, you really don’t see that. It’s a very special place.
Finally, would you mind sharing a little about your background and how you came to work at Mount Vernon?
I can start off by saying that I hated history in high school! I thought it was dreadfully boring. But I was fascinated by archaeology and the story of the 15th-century princes in the Tower of London, that mystery, and the archaeology behind that. When I was in college I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist and I went on a summer field school in England between my sophomore and junior years. I discovered two things: one, I really don’t like mud so much, and two, archaeologists live in a lot of weird, uncomfortable places, camping out while they’re on digs and I don’t like that too much either. You’ve got to know your limitations. I knew I wanted to work with the material culture side of history, not just straight documentary history. The question was, what can I do that is history with objects that’s just a little bit cleaner? Museums!
I looked for programs in American material culture, decorative arts, museum studies, and I was very fortunate to get a fellowship to the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture at the University of Delaware. I got there really knowing virtually nothing about American art or decorative arts because there simply wasn’t anything taught on American art where I had been an undergraduate. I got a master’s degree at Winterthur and I went on and worked whenever jobs cropped up wherever I happened to be, and somehow one thing led to another. I eventually went back to school and got a doctorate in American Studies at Yale, working a lot with the wonderful collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. After a few more years went by, I ended up in Hartford, Connecticut, where I was fortunate to get a job as head curator at the Connecticut Historical Society, which has a wonderful collection of art and artifacts from the earliest settlement of Connecticut in the 17th century up through the present. It was a great spot because I got to be very much a generalist, which I like. That was a wonderful experience. Then the job opened up at Mount Vernon, and you know, if you’re an American historian and you like stuff, what could be better?
Thank you, Susan!
Interview conducted and edited by Hannah Freece