by Noor Amanullah, Rutgers University Extern
March is Women’s History Month, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation is celebrating by honoring an important woman preservationist, Ann Pamela Cunningham, who led the effort to preserve the home of President George Washington.
Today Mount Vernon is one of the most visited historic sites in the country, thanks in large part to Cunningham and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. Washington’s property also is one of the best documented and most complete examples of an estate from early America. Cunningham drew attention to the cause of preserving the site in its early days of deterioration, even battling Congress to protect the estate.
In 1853, Cunningham received a letter from her mother, who had been traveling home to South Carolina by steamboat along the Potomac River.
“I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it that the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it? It does seem such a blot on our country!” wrote Mrs. Cunningham.
Inspired by her mother’s words, Cunningham set out to preserve Mount Vernon, voicing an appeal to “The Ladies of the South” in a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper, urging readers to join her in securing the property and working on its restoration.
As part of her preservation efforts, Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies Association. After years of fundraising and raising awareness for its cause, the Association eventually bought Mount Vernon from John Augustine Washington III, the great-grandnephew of the President and last private owner of the property, for $200,000 in 1859. Although delayed by the onset of the Civil War and set back by her own health issues, Cunningham was devoted to restoring Mount Vernon and led the Mount Vernon Ladies Association until her resignation in 1874.
Mount Vernon has had more than 80 million visitors since opening to the public in 1860. The estate is still owned and maintained by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the oldest national historic preservation organization in the country. https://www.mountvernon.org/preservation/.