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Source: Portico Magazine
Date: February 2007
Byline: Cathy Adams

PRESIDENTIAL MANNER

American Village and Southern Living team up to re-create America's first presidential home.

George Washington would appreciate Alabama's American Village museum for a number of reasons, foremost its educational mission of teaching good citizenship and history to school children and adults and the creative interpretation of his personal role in shaping American government.

What he would undoubtedly enjoy the most is the easily walked commute between the Village's re-creations of the Philadelphia President's House and the first president's beloved Virginia estate, Mount Vernon.

Washington's homesickness for Mount Vernon was a continuing ache documented during the years 1790-1797 spent in residence in the country's temporary capital of Philadelphia, carving out the concept of the Chief Executive's role in the fledgling democracy. The letters from that period that he left behind would yield important design clues for 21st century architects and designers.

A collaborative venture by Southern Living magazine and the American Village, and the most recent addition to the Village's 113-acre Montevallo campus, the President's House is unique in its dual-purpose role as a year-long Southern Living Showcase Home and thereafter as a living-history teaching tool. "While the architectural inspiration for the Southern Living Showcase Home goes back more than 200 years, the architect and designers incorporated modern amenities, features, and details that are in many cases maintenance free and comfortable for today's lifestyles," explains Southern Living's Executive Homes Editor Derek Belden.

Belden further describes the partnership between Southern Living and American Village as a way for the magazine to "give something back" to its community of 16 million readers. The American Village, a non-profit entity chartered by the Alabama Legislature in 1995 and opened to the public in 1999, is in the words of its director Tom Walker, "first and foremeost a civic education center with a mission of educating and inspiring young people to become good citizens."

Mike Hamrick of Eufaula, architect for the American Village's structures, which also include replicas of Mount Vernon, the Oval Office, and Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church, calls the concept "the most rewarding project on which I've ever worked." He continues,"history speaks through design and form. Symbolism and allegory can be taught through architectural detailing. While we tried to be truthful to period detailing in designing the President's House we interpreted classical profiles by combining stock moldings, not requiring special knives, to create architectural accents that visitors to the Showhouse can use in their own homes."

The greatest challenge in designing a modern model of the President's House lay in the fact that the original home, built c. 1767 for a Philadelphia widow and her daughters, was gutted in 1832. Hamrick began his design work with factual inspirational sources limited to a few early engravings and water colors of the house which George Washington and his successor John Adams occupied from 1790-1800. (In an interesting historical footnote, Adams and his wife Abigail moved from the President's House to the White House on a November Saturday in 1800. Three days later he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson in a bid for re-election.)

History's mysteries began to unravel when the design team found Pennsylvanian Edward Lawler, Jr., historian for the Independence Hall Association and foremost scholar on the history and design of the President's House. Tom Walker credits Lawler for "rescuing us from national amnesia" in regard to the country's first official residence.

"Ten years ago when a public meeting was held to discuss changes to Independence Mall several people suggested re-building the President's House," Lawler observes. "I started researching the house, research that became what my editor termed an obsession."

Most informative for the team seeking to re-create the house in the American Village was a 1773 insurance survey, providing detailed (though archaically spelled) descriptions of both interior and exterior features of the home, from dimensions of the, unusual for the period, four-bay facade, to "a frontispiece at door, 3 pediments to windows, Modilion Eaves, wainscut rails and balisters Mahogany."

Based on information provided by Lawler, architect Mike Hamrick modified some initial design elements, including placing the front entrance slightly off center and changing an ornamental cased opening from foyer to dining room into a span of colonnaded arches. A historically accurate bow window in the living room is a model of the original, believed to have served as inspiration for the design of the Oval Office. "Looking at early engravings of the President's House in comparison to the house Mike designed it is obvious that if Washington visited us he would immediately recognize the home," comments Tom Walker.

Derek Belden sees Southern Living's mission in creating the Showhouse as dovetailing perfectly with that of the Village. "We wanted to show how a historically inspired home can live for today. We employed as many Alabama-based companies as possible in the design and construction of the home. The goal was to incorporate the spirit of quality in the original design using new materials designed to require little or no maintenance." The picket fence is PVC-wrapped steel that will never warp, and the cornice millwork utilizes a synthetic urethane impervious to rot.

Interior designers Rebecca Hatcher and Ruth Mears have furnished the home with a mixture of traditionally designed reproduction furniture and antiques. Derek Belden translates such an approach being applicable to his readers by pointing out that "almost all Southerners have inherited at least one piece of antique furniture." Features such as stenciled walls in the dining room are true to early American design.

At the end of the Showhouse phase in December 2007, design emphasis in first-floor furnishings and art work will assume a more totally period purist approach. According to Lawler, "About 40 pieces of the house's inventoried furniture from the 1790s survive, at Mount Vernon, in the White House, the Smithsonian, and in private collections. These pieces, including a Philadelphia hairy-paw Chippendale sofa that would be valued at more than $2 million even without its Washington provenance, belonged to the president personally. The government-issue furniture moved with John Adams to the District of Columbia, and was lost when the British burned the White House in 1814."

One donor has purchased an antique breakfront, now on display, that will remain in the home. Walker credits "hundreds of individuals for donating their time, talents and treasure" in creating the American Village as a unique resource. The Southern Living Showcase President's House is dedicated in honor of James and Sylvia Braswell. Mr. Braswell, a Vestavia businessman, made a bequest of $500,000 in his wife's memory to make the house a reality. For Walker, Braswell's generosity sums up the American spirit. "Mr. Braswell made a gift that is both generous and civic minded. He believed that it is hard to appreciate freedom if you take it for granted."

(For an in depth look at Edward Lawler's research into the 18th-century President's House in Philadelphia visit www.ushistory.org/presidentshouse.)

(For more information and days and hours of operation for the American Village and the Southern Living Showcase Home consult their Web sites at www.Americanvillage.org and www.southernliving.com.)

(The American Village is located in Montevallo, AL. From Birmingham, take exit 234 from I-65 South and follow the signs.)

 

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