Video: Mount Vernon gets a makeover

updated 11/13/2006 2:49:06 PM ET 2006-11-13T19:49:06

The mansion still overlooks the Potomac, looking much as it did in the late 18th century. Sheep still graze in the pastures, and mules help work the fields.

But carefully tucked into four acres of George Washington's Mount Vernon estate are two new 21st-century buildings that dramatically alter the experience for visitors at one of America's most important historical sites.

The new orientation center, and a second building housing a museum and education center, opened Oct. 27 with attractions that portray Washington as the "nation's first action hero." A 20-minute adventure film called "We Fight to Be Free" highlights his career as commander of the Continental Army. Wax statues - meticulously created with age-regression technology - depict Washington as a young man. His false teeth are on display, but so are his pistol and sword.

Mount Vernon officials made the changes after concluding that the estate was perpetuating the image of Washington as a stodgy, impersonal icon. They sought to change that image, particularly among school children who make up a third of the 1 million annual visitors. They also wanted to push Mount Vernon to the vanguard of museums and historical sites telling stories in a multimedia age.

"It's definitely an improvement," Anuj Verma, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, Calif., who was making a return visit to Mount Vernon when he joined thousands of sightseers there on the new attractions' opening day. "Before, they didn't give you much information about George Washington himself. You kind of just saw the house."

Despite the changes, Mount Vernon wants to keep the mansion as its centerpiece. The new buildings are cleverly designed to be inconspicuous. Most of the new 66,700 square-foot complex is underneath a four-acre pasture.

"We see the mansion as the crown jewel and always the crown jewel," said Mount Vernon spokeswoman Emily Coleman Dibella.

But the balance between education and entertainment can be a tricky one. Another new attraction is a 14-minute film that uses what Mount Vernon calls "immersive technology" - the seats rumble when cannons are fired, and fake snow falls during the scene depicting the Delaware crossing.

These types of special effects are instantly recognizable to any kid who's seen a movie in a theme park where audiences routinely feel their seats shake and are subject to fake surf, rain or wind. But The Washington Post's architecture critic unfavorably compared the new Mount Vernon attractions to a Disney World experience and lamented that knowledgeable visitors might not learn much in the education center.

Mount Vernon director James Rees defends the approach, however, saying it's a way of entertaining viewers without giving scholarship short shrift.

Rees visited more than 200 museums around the world looking for ideas for the new facilities at Mount Vernon. He was particularly impressed with the new Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., which uses holograms and smoke machines and explores the man behind the myth.

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Many museums and historic sites still try to tell their story through "dead stuff in glass boxes," said Bob Rogers, who designed the Lincoln museum. With both Washington and Lincoln, "the goal is getting past the iconic facades and making them real," he added. "Just because it's a new way of telling the story does not mean we are dumbing it down."

The Lincoln museum opened in April 2005 and exceeded expectations by drawing more than 600,000 visitors in its first year.

Mount Vernon tourists will now begin their visit by seeing the "We Fight to Be Free" film at the orientation center. The movie focuses on Washington's decision to cross the Delaware on Christmas Day 1776 and attack Hessian mercenaries for the Continental Army's galvanizing victory at Trenton. Other parts of Washington's life are told through flashbacks.

The film and other new exhibits are designed to make "you think of Washington as attractive, spirited, courageous, athletic," said Rees.

Education center displays include a sculpture of Washington that creates the illusion of Washington's eyes and face tracking you as you walk. A quote from Washington's days as a young soldier in the French and Indian War displayed prominently on the walls reads: "I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me there is something charming in the sound."

The new facilities are the result of a $110 million fundraising campaign begun four years ago.

Next year, another new attraction will open at Mount Vernon - a reconstruction of Washington's whiskey distillery. He started making whiskey at Mount Vernon in 1797 and within two years was the country's largest whiskey producer, making 11,000 gallons annually in a state-of-the-art distillery. The distillery is designed to showcase Washington's business acumen. The facility was formally dedicated in September by Britain's Prince Andrew, but it won't open to the public until April.

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