February 22, 2010 — Over more than four decades, the Papers of George Washington project, established by the University of Virginia and Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, has collected copies of some 138,000 Washington documents. Mount Vernon announced on Friday that the collection will eventually be transferred to a new Library for the Study of George Washington to be built at the home of the first president.
Roughly 15 years from now, when the last of approximately 90 volumes of letters is edited, they will become a centerpiece of the library, destined to be the international headquarters for knowledge about America's most famous founding father.
The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation has pledged $38 million to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, to construct the library.
"This is the largest single gift Mount Vernon has ever received and is one of several large gifts the foundation has given the institution," said Ted Crackel, editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington at U.Va., which has published 61 volumes so far and issues two volumes a year. "The completed library will eventually house the greatest collection of Washington's works held anywhere in the world.
"Although there is a large collection of original documents Washington himself preserved housed at the Library of Congress, the collection to be transferred from U.Va. to the library contains copies of these documents and thousands more collected from repositories all around the world."
Construction of the 45,000-square-foot facility, which will be named the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, is expected to begin in early 2011, with a completion date in 2012. The facility will be tucked into the woods across from Mount Vernon's conservation complex and within walking distance of the mansion itself.
As the nation's foremost center for amassing and disseminating knowledge about Washington, the library will serve as a scholarly retreat, create educational outreach programs on Washington, and provide seminars and training programs with a special focus on Washington's leadership.
As the longtime chairman of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Smith has championed a number of projects related to Washington, including the purchase of the famous Lansdowne portrait by Gilbert Stuart for the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. In addition, under Smith's leadership, the foundation has supported the construction of a museum and education center at Mount Vernon, a pair of major traveling exhibitions about Washington, and special programs focusing on Washington for students and teachers across the nation.
"I am pleased and humbled that my fellow trustees have approved the award of this grant and the naming opportunity in my honor," Smith said. "It is our hope that this new facility will be a tool that the staff at Mount Vernon and Washington scholars can use to keep his place in American history as not only the Father of our Country, but arguably our greatest president of all time."
The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which purchased the estate from the Washington family in 1858 and opened it to the public in 1860, receives no funds from the local, state, or federal governments.
The idea for a facility that serves the role of George Washington's presidential library has been part of Mount Vernon's master plan for several years. Although Washington continues to be one of the most familiar faces in American history, numerous surveys and focus groups have revealed that a majority of Americans – particularly those in younger generations – know little about Washington's achievements or personality.
Washington himself planned to construct a library at Mount Vernon, Crackel said. In 1797, less than a month after leaving the presidency, he wrote a former aide that upon returning to Mount Vernon he was surrounded by workmen making repairs to the estate where he had spent little time since taking office eight years earlier.
He wrote, "I have but one house to build – one 'for the accommodation & security of my Military, Civil & private Papers which are voluminous and may be interesting.'"
"It is never too late to act on a good idea," Crackel said.
The Papers of George Washington project is housed in U.Va.'s Alderman Library. The project was launched by U.Va. and the Mount Vernon Ladies Association in 1968 and is funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, and several private foundations, as well as U.Va. and Mount Vernon.
In the fall of 2005, it was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush, the only documentary editing project ever to be so honored. In 2007, the project launched a digital edition – again created jointly by Mount Vernon and U.Va. through Rotunda, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press. That edition now contains 55 of the 61 volumes in print and will soon add three more. The new Washington library will, when the Washington papers project is completed, take over responsibility for updating the digital edition.
Until the transfer of the Papers of George Washington, the Mount Vernon library will provide a secure and environmentally sound home to 45 books from Washington's original library, as well as 450 letters and other manuscripts written in his hand. The collection also includes approximately 1,500 additional 18th-century books, as well as thousands of important 19th-century newspapers, manuscripts and documents.
Mount Vernon will more than double its library staff to provide expertise and assistance to historians and authors. Serious researchers working on articles, papers or books about Washington will be lodged in a guest house adjacent to the library.