The Surprising Modern-Day Threat to George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s Virginia home, is a place few people may believe could ever come under threat. Yet for decades after Mount Vernon (owned and operated by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association) was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, developers have attempted to compromise the rolling hills and lush forests visible from the estate—a view designed by Washington himself.
Interestingly, this viewshed was the first in the United States to be protected by creating a national park, with the idea that the resulting Piscataway National Park would help deter local development. Still, both the estate and the park remain vulnerable to disruptions in their landscape today.
The most recent threat came from Dominion Energy, a Virginia power company that attempted to build a compressor station just 40 feet from Piscataway National Park. In response to the threat, Mount Vernon started a public awareness campaign in opposition to the project that included their addition to the National Trust’s 2018 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.
Fortunately, Dominion stood down just five days after the 11 Most announcement. While the organization still owns land by Piscataway National Park, Mount Vernon is hoping to secure conservation easements on the area that will stop any unnecessary development. We interviewed Dr. Doug Bradburn, president and CEO of George Washington’s Mount Vernon, to learn more about the threat from Dominion and about the importance of protecting America’s significant viewsheds.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do the Mount Vernon and Piscataway National Park viewsheds need protection?
Mount Vernon as an institution came together in the 1850s to preserve George Washington’s estate, so that people could come and see how and where he lived, and so they could be inspired by the stories of the founding era.
The preservation mission here is to present the estate as it looked in 1799, and the view across the river becomes a big part of that for a couple reasons. One is that George Washington himself designed the views on the estate … they were all part of its landscape design.
This is a historically significant site, perhaps one of the most important historic sites in the country, because it has been a [place of] pilgrimage for Americans since the American Revolution itself. So that gives it a special civic value for our national culture.
[The Ladies’ Association has been actively preserving this view since the 1950s through] a national campaign that led to the creation of the first national park for the preservation of a viewshed or a view—Piscataway National Park. If we just let it be developed, we’ll lose something that collectively has been a part of our nation since its founding.
Why is it important to protect viewsheds in general?
It’s about preserving your cultural resources in a way that can be inspirational, that can be useful, that keeps some ground free from over-development or development that might take away [from] the character of the natural landscape.
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Walk me through the threat from Dominion leading up to Mount Vernon’s inclusion on the 2018 America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places List.
Dominion Energy’s Eastern Market Access Project is an effort to deliver natural gas into Maryland through a pipeline they acquired years ago. To support this project, Dominion needs to build transmission compressor stations. [A few years ago, Dominion] began a project to build a compressor station in Bryans Road, Maryland, in our viewshed area—in fact, an area only 40 feet from the boundary of Piscataway National Park.
It was clear to us that [the compressor station] would be visible from Mount Vernon. There was also a danger to the forest’s health over the long term. We first tried to persuade Dominion to move somewhere else. Mount Vernon couldn’t be moved, but this compressor station certainly could be. I think at first, Dominion wasn’t particularly responsive.
We had our first press conference to publicly announce our opposition to the compressor station [the day we were] added to America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. We combined the announcement with a petition drive and a social media campaign to raise awareness about the viewshed and this particular threat. Five days after our campaign started, Dominion reached out and decided to find a different location.
The publicity and the awareness from the 11 Most listing were key to putting on public pressure that wouldn’t have been worth dealing with [from Dominion’s standpoint]. It was clear that we were going slow down the regulatory process to a substantial degree.
You have to credit Dominion, though. It’s not at all clear that they could have been stopped, but they were the ones ultimately who agreed this wasn’t worth the fight.
What are preservation efforts looking like for Mount Vernon and Piscataway National Park in the future?
One is education. Conservation easements in the area are held by individual property owners, many of whom are new to the region and don’t necessarily understand its history. We want to continue working with our partners across the river, particularly the Accokeek Foundation and [Piscataway] National Park, to educate locals about their responsibilities.
Another challenge is the pressure of growth. This area is 14 miles from the capital of the United States, one of the most expensive areas of the country to live in. This land has a lot of value, and some areas aren’t protected under either the national park or under current conservation easements.
As growth happens, more pieces of property are more accessible. Our future is all about making sure we’re communicating well with the people on the other side of the river, and working with landowners and county officials to help create a sustainable community.
I guess the work never ends when it comes to preservation.
I don’t think it will for a long time. It’s less the problem of major companies like Dominion, because we can try to work with these institutions. I think more of our challenges come from individual landowners who want to move and start working with a developer, though those folks have every right to do that.
Recognizing a viewshed is an interesting preservation challenge. It’s obviously not your typical preservation issue like endangered buildings or neighborhoods. But a view is a unique thing.