Mount Vernon opens rare space

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No, the cornerstone at Mount Vernon does not really mark a secret tunnel. 

Nancy Hayward, the assistant director for education and programming at the Mount Vernon Estate, assures curious inquirers that the cornerstone made famous by “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is not a hidden key in the basement of Mount Vernon depicted in the film when Nicolas Cages character kidnaps the President of the United States.

Historic Mount Vernon is opening the typically closed space where part of the filming took place.  The rare tours of George Washingtons basement are offered through February 10.

“Mount Vernon has seen a 280% increase in attendance since we opened the space for tours,” Emily Coleman Dibella, Mount Vernons associate director, said.

Mount Vernon does have tunnel-like structures, such as the one from the old ice house, which extends for 50 to 60 feet and exits by the river.  The Hollywood scouts, who started calling in October 2006, used the entrance to this tunnel as inspiration for the tunnel depicted in the film.

Filming began in April 2007 and lasted for a week while Mount Vernon remained open for tours.  During the filming of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” almost 20,000 visitors walked through the Mansion and received a one-of-a kind t-shirt from the crew.

Hayward enjoyed worked closely with director Jon Turteltaub and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

The crew was so conscientious about protecting Mount Vernon that they recreated the basement at an offsite location in Burbank so they could do some of the more potentially damaging filming there. Hayward said the quality of work in the recreation was impeccably done.

“That’s part of the magic of Hollywood,” she said.

Hayward said she remembered one moment when Turteltaub said Nicolas Cage had given him a letter written by Washington after the first “National Treasure” film.  Turteltaub called his assistant , who read the letter over the phone while Turteltaub simultaneously dictated it to Hayward.  They discovered that the letter was an early one written to one of Washington’s farm managers, William Pierce.

“Working with Disney to connect our destination to a high-profile film like ‘National Treasure: Book of Secrets’ puts DC in front of its core audience — history lovers and family travelers — and in an exciting way,” William A. Hanbury, the president and CEO of the Washington Convention & Tourism Corp., said. “The film shows how history truly comes alive in the nation’s capital.”

Jordan Poole, manager of restoration at Mount Vernon, took the Alexandria Times for a behind-the-scenes tour of the restricted basement space. The centerpiece of the basement is the cornerstone, an 18th century stone tablet. The carved initials “LW” refer to George Washington’s half brother Lawrence Washington, who willed the estate to the first President.

The cornerstone is not actually in the corner because of how the house expanded over time, Poole said.  The original tablet is protected in Mount Vernon’s museum, but the replacement is an exact copy.

The basement space features only one finished room, the servants hall, and three arched vaults.  The vaults stored a distillery and food and would have been filled with casks of whiskey and wine. 

The servants hall is directly below Washington’s study.  White marks on the supporting beams reveal that Washington used plaster to soundproof the ceiling of the basement because his study was directly above the servants hall, Poole said.  Sounds of voices and shuffling shoes sound from the study above today.  One can only guess at what secrets the servants heard while working below. 

Patches of Mount Vernon’s own recipe for horsehair and oxenhair plaster peak through the basement walls.

What visitors will not see on the special tour is the brick-lined well and 18th century graffiti.  Towards the North entrance (which was entirely recreated for a scene in the movie when a Secret Service agent kicks in the door only to be left out of the movie), Washington had installed a 22-foot-deep brick-lined well to keep ice and other food items, Poole said.

Since 1858, the estate has withstood 150 years of renovations.  During those years, some of the many workers who made improvements left their mark.  Engraved within the plaster wall on the North end of the basement are carefully carved block initials. “W.T.K.” and “J.H.A.” among others.  Even in the 18th century people couldn’t resist the urge to leave a relic of their own.

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