In Search of George Washington

Mason, distiller, ballroom dancer: There's more to this founding father than you think. Here's where to trace his touch in the city that bears his name.

He has been gone for more than 200 years, yet George Washington still surfaces in his namesake city. Depictions serious and whimsical range from myth-laden murals and formal portraits to bobbleheads in souvenir shops and even a crowd-pleasing, 10-foot tall, big-headed cartoon figure who races other presidents at every MLB Nationals game.

The two most popular sites for paying homage to this founding father? The Washington Monument, of course, which, like a needle at the center of Masonic geometry, orients visitors to the federal district. An elevator ride to the top (at 555 feet, the capital’s tallest structure) reveals a panorama that Washington, the Master Mason, helped to plan. [Editor's note: the Monument remains closed until 2019 for needed repairs to the elevator.]

And a site connected to the man himself—his Virginia estate, Mount Vernon, where the farmer/brewer expanded the family house into a 21-room mansion. Washington ordered that, at his death, his slaves be freed and his body placed in a tomb here, not the crypt built for him in the Capitol. Since 2006, a high-tech complex provides encounters with a mesmerizing hologram of his face and life-size likenesses—the 19-year-old surveyor, the 45-year-old general and the 57-year-old president.

His varied identities create an itinerary across the capital’s landscape. Follow along below.


Churchgoer

Washington attended Anglican services at Alexandria’s colonial-era Christ Church, where a small silver plaque marks his family box pew. His original plan for the capital included “a church intended for national purposes.” For many, the Washington National Cathedral, chartered by Congress and built from 1909 to 1990, fills that role. There, a 7-foot-tall Vermont marble statue anchors a bay marked by his family crest and a semi-abstract stained glass window.

Washington National Cathedral


City planner

Congress agreed that the new capital be placed along the Potomac River, and Washington, a surveyor in his youth, laid out the federal district as a 10-square-mile diamond. He commissioned French engineer Pierre L’Enfant to oversee the plan, later diminished by a third when pro-slavery Virginia reclaimed its property.

In 1793, Washington—in Masonic apron—symbolically set the U.S. Capitol cornerstone, its location now unknown. Two sites reflect his Masonic identity—a muraled banquet hall and commemorative room at the Scottish Rite Temple of D.C. and an array of objects and art, including a 17-foot bronze statue, at Alexandria’s George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

George Washington Masonic National Memorial


Intelligence chief

In 1777, Washington wrote to Nathaniel Sackett, hiring him at $50 a month to serve as spymaster. The International Spy Museum displays the letter instructing Sackett to uncover “the designs of the enemy.”

International Spy Museum


Document signer

His name appears on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, charters of freedom at the National Archives, and his image centers a mural in the rotunda. Look in vain for Washington’s signature on the Declaration of Independence. He had departed the Continental Congress to prepare for battling the British.

National Archives exterior


General of the Continental Army

With the 1781 defeat of Cornwallis, the Revolutionary War ended, and Washington resigned his commission. He remains in uniform, however, atop a horse at the center of Washington Circle at 23rd and K sts. NW, a block from his namesake university.


Citizen-soldier

Many saw Washington’s return to his farm as a parallel to Roman general Cincinnatus’s return to his plow. The Society of the Cincinnati, formed in 1783 by Washington and fellow officers, now occupies the elegant Anderson House, displaying artifacts and murals that depict those military heroes amidst Greek goddesses.


Ballroom dancer

Washington twice attended the annual Birthnight Ball in his honor at Gadsby’s Tavern, a hospitable inn patronized by Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lafayette. It’s now a museum and restaurant on Old Town’s Market Square in Alexandria, Virginia.

Gadsby's Tavern


American symbol

In 1796, Washington posed (somewhat reluctantly) for Gilbert Stuart. The result: a majestic portrait referred to as “The Lansdowne,” the name of its first owner, a pro-American British marquis. Purchased in 2000 with help ($30 million) from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, it hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, a focal point among likenesses of all 44 presidents.

The painting alludes to U.S. political power in the formal black suit of a humble citizen-leader, the sword (only ceremonial) dropped in favor of an open hand, a fantasy table with legs topped by vigilant eagles, a chair with the laurel-draped (victorious) Great Seal, papers and books that reflect undergirding ideas and a rainbow of promise that the new nation’s storms have passed.


Buff hero

Enthroned on the second floor of the National Museum of American History, Horatio Greenough’s 12-ton marble statue portrays Washington in sandals, bare-chested and draped in a toga. Flanked by Apollo and Hercules (Greece was the cradle of democracy, after all), a Native American and Columbus (the New World), he cradles a sheathed sword while the other hand points skyward. Or is he signaling the escalator to the third floor, where an exhibition about U.S. presidents displays his actual 1790s uniform?

Horatio Greenough's statue of George Washington

Step-grandfather

Many fine and domestic objects related to the Washingtons (the largest collection of Washingtoniana outside Mount Vernon) belong to Tudor Place, the Georgetown manse built for one of Martha’s granddaughters. Martha’s china and tea table grace a parlor, and a case displays the Washingtons’ gift of a baby rattle.

Tudor Place


Approachable president

Washington and wife Martha hosted many overnight and dinner guests at Mount Vernon. Now Madame Tussauds Wax Museum invites visitors for in-touch moments and selfie-ops with every president, including George in tricorn hat and uniform.


Gourmand

As president in New York, Washington hosted weekly dinner parties of three courses, each with up to 20 items like venison, oysters, duck and claret. Virginia dinners featured vegetables and meats grown on his estate, plus English and Virginia beers, Madeira wine and whiskey from his own profitmaking distillery.

Today the nearby Mount Vernon Inn serves George and Martha favorites like shrimp with grits from the original gristmill, peanut soup and hoecakes topped with country ham. Star chef José Andrés honors and spins colonial (and later) recipes at his America Eats Tavern in Tysons Corner, Virginia.


Saint enthroned

Circling the interior of the U.S. Capitol dome is a vision in fresco, “The Apotheosis of Washington” by Constantino Brumidi. Surrounded by classical figures (virtues, American industry, 13 colonies), the general, with lap drape and upright sword, reigns in glory.


Candidate for king

Although North America broke from a monarchy, some citizens wanted Washington to rule in the New World. After serving two terms as president, he resigned, insisting, "I didn't fight George III to become George I." Royal sites to visit? None. Thank you, Mr. Washington. 

Jean Lawlor Cohen
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