After more than two centuries, the country’s first president, George Washington, will finally get his own library near the heart of the nation’s capital in Mount Vernon, Va.
The Fred W. Smith Library for the Study of George Washington, opening Friday, will feature over 18,000 published works about the president, a digital library with more than 250,000 pieces, and Washington’s personal books and hand-written letters to give scholars a glimpse into the Founding Father’s life.
“We’re really interested in fostering more scholarship around Washington and his seminal role,” Curt Viebranz, the president of the George Washington Mt. Vernon Society, said when he appeared on The Daily Rundown in July.
The 45,000 square foot library was envisioned more than a decade ago by the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the nation’s oldest historic organization, which has paved the way for preserving George Washington’s legacy and was instrumental in preserving the president’s home.
“Washington’s character and leadership were once our nation’s greatest natural resources. These programs will ensure that our leaders of today and tomorrow will continue to have the opportunity to learn from his example,” former Mount Vernon Ladies Association president James Rees wrote in a message before retiring.
Their dream of a library has become a reality through mostly private funds from 7,000 donors, including $38 million from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, raising the $106 million needed to build the new center
In addition to owning and operating George Washington’s personal home and grounds, the Ladies Association will also own and manage the library. The Washington library is not affiliated with the modern National Archive’s Presidential Library system, which has funded libraries for the presidents since Franklin Roosevelt.
But the unique crusade to build Washington’s own library isn’t new. For presidents before Hoover, private organizations and individual states have created libraries like The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and The John Adams Library.
An avid letter writer with dreams of his own library, George Washington wrote to his friend James Henry in 1797, “I have not houses to build, except one, which I must erect for the accommodation and security of my military, civil and private papers, which are voluminous and may be interesting.”
One of the most interesting works on display is his copy of Acts of the First Congress with the words “President of the United States” engraved in gold on the cover. Acquired at auction for $9.8 million, the leather bound work outlines presidential duties and features Washington’s handwritten notes from his time in office.
The library will not house any of Washington’s personal artifacts beyond books and letters and will be open only to visiting scholars and by appointment to those with research questions.
The building plans accommodate a 30-person full time staff, including curators, education staff, a library director and up to eight scholars living on the premises, complete with a reception hall, reading rooms and a conference room where lectures will be held and where university teachers can occasionally conduct classes. Large glass doors will open to a garden where many of Washington’s favorites like dogwood and redbud trees will grow.
Ann Bookout of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association told USA Today, “No president in American history deserves the honor of a presidential library more than our first chief executive–nor is there a better story to tell.”