I always seem to find reasons to return to Mt. Vernon, Virginia, the home of George Washington overlooking the Potomac River. However, this month there is another reason for fans of the blockbuster movie “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets” — a new tour into the basement of Mt. Vernon.
The movie ignited a new spark of interest in Mount Vernon so the caretakers of the mansion opened the doors of the “secret” basement last month for a series of special tours in conjunction with the premier of the second National Treasure movie.
The response was so strong, that Mount Vernon is extending the hour-long walking tours of the basements through March 2008. This special tour is limited to 25 visitors per time slot (10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.).
Visitors will see the mansion’s basement and cornerstone, the setting for a pivotal movie scene. Fans of the movie will recognize the white brick cellar as the location where Nicolas Cage’s character kidnaps the president. But, don’t expect the cornerstone to have a secret lever that unlocks the tunnel down to the Potomac. That part of the story is made up — both the secret lever and the tunnel.
The basement tours combine Hollywood and history. Visitors will hear stories about the filming and how the basement and its stone well inspired the screenplay. Guides will also explain how the basements were used in George Washington’s day. The tour takes visitors on a walk to various plantation nooks and crannies filmed by the Hollywood crew and down the hill to where the fictitious tunnel opened to the river.
(There is a charge of $2 for the National Treasure tour in addition to Estate admission. There are no advance reservations for individual tickets. Groups of 20 or more may reserve a separate tour in advance by calling the Group Sales Office: 703-799-8688.)
Don’t stop with only the tour of the basement, the rest of Mount Vernon is fascinating. The complex picture of our first President as a farmer, businessman, politician, military officer, gardener and architect that the traditional mansion tour provides is exceptional.
The impressive new Ford Orientation Center provides an overview of Mount Vernon and its grounds complete with a miniature replica of the mansion and its rooms as well as an 18-minute movie about Washington’s life.
Mount Vernon is also home to the breathtaking Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center. The display rooms are actually underground beneath the grassy field seen through the Ford Orientation Center’s sweeping floor-to-ceiling windows.
The “museum” portion is a traditional display of artifacts associated with life at Mount Vernon, the Revolutionary War and the presidency. Space is set aside for special exhibitions — during my visit, American Presidential China was on display.
TheEducation Center is the heart and soul of this building. Original videos, innovative theaters, interactive rooms for children, maps and wax models recreate Washington’s exceptional life. Plan at least an hour or more in this center — the videos telling Washington’s life are exceptional. Early-morning fog rolls across the theater screen, your seats shake as cannons roar and snow falls as the Washington leads the Continental Army across the Delaware on Christmas Eve sending shivers down your spine.
In an attempt to visualize George Washington, forensic scientists and computer imaging specialists analyzed paintings, sculptures, dentures and clothing of our first President. This data was combined with aging programming to create accurate figures of Washington as a 19-year-old man surveying land, a 45-year-old General astride his white horse and 57-year-old President being sworn in to office.
Plan a block of time to visit Mount Vernon. Take at least a morning or an afternoon. It is easy to spend a full day visiting the Ford Orientation Center, the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center, the Mansion, Washington’s tomb, the basements, the formal gardens, the slave quarters, the 16-sided barn, the fruit garden, distillery and grist mill. Visitors learn about life during the late 1700s as well as Washington and his family. There is, of course, normal fast food but The Mount Vernon Inn serves affordable traditional American meals.
My visits to Mount Vernon remind me that one man can make a difference. George Washington could have taken the path of Napoleon but he resigned his command and turned the control of the Army over to the United States government. He could have been declared king or emperor but he maintained the vision of a democracy and governmental checks and balances. He could have remained president, but believed in elected common citizen leaders and an America, made up of very different states, united by symbiotic common relationships — “the energy of the system.”
Our country and our government would be far different today if George Washington had been a man of different character and was not so dedicated to his belief in democracy and the common sense of the common man.
For more information about visiting Mount Vernon click here or call 703-780-2000. The Estate is 16 miles south of Washington D.C. Parking is free. Admission for Adults is $13; senior citizens 62 and older pay $12; youth ages 6–11 are $6; kids 5 and younger are free. Mount Vernon is open every day of the year.
There is a charge of $2 for the National Treasure tour in addition to Estate admission. There are no advance reservations for individual tickets. Groups of 20 or more may reserve a separate tour in advance by calling the Group Sales Office: 703-799-8688.