It’s official: Chintz never goes out of style. Over the weekend, the curators at Mount Vernon unveiled the newly renovated upper bedchamber thought to have belonged to George Washington’s step-granddaughter, Nelly Custis. The two-year, $175,000-renovation, according to The Washington Post, reveals that Washington was decorating with chintz, which was all the rage in British design in the late 18th century.
“This is a picture in terms of the vividness of the color and the saturation that you should expect to see in all the other rooms,” Associate Curator Amanda Isaac said, explaining that this one is the first of a mansion-wide reinterpretation that will take place over the next several years.
Mount Vernon’s team of curators and historians have only recently been discovering new details about how Washington might have decorated his home during the time he lived there before his death in 1799.
A Mount Vernon record dating to 1802 refers to this space as the Chintz Room, so Isaac and her team went looking for a pattern that would faithfully represent that style. They found what they were looking for at Winterthur, the famous Delaware estate of Henry Francis duPont whose museum has one of the largest collections of English printed textiles from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Here’s what they found:
“‘We were looking for an English chintz—an interpretation of Indian design, something coming out in 1774,” Isaac said. “The boldness of this pattern spoke to us, and the fact that it had a full repeat.”
The Mount Vernon team commissioned this pattern from Windham Fabrics in New Jersey, which specializes in historic reproductions.
Isaac and her team were taken with the knobby, zig-zag branches, the roses and peonies, leaves that look like holly, and pods that resemble pomegranate. “It’s a wild and crazy mishmash of all these great motifs,” she said. “But when you start to pick it apart, it’s total fantasy.”
As for the wallpaper, recent discoveries underneath the floorboards revealed this fragment:
They used this color—a slightly paler version of the vivid green that covers the walls in the dining room downstairs—as a guide when they went to Adelphi Paper Hangings in New York to identify a pattern for this room.
The company, which also specializes in historic designs, had just introduced a new pattern taken from Berrien House, the Savannah home of John Berrien, who was once Georgia’s state treasurer. There’s even a direct tie between him and George Washington:
According to this article:
The house, which dates back as early as 1791, is named for the Revolutionary War veteran Maj. John Berrien, who was severely wounded at the Battle of Monmouth and was one of the first recipients of the Order of Cincinnati medal presented by George Washington.
This tiny sprig pattern “is the type of thing they put in bedchambers,” Isaac said. The saturated green-blue color, furthermore, “was hugely popular in British houses of nobility and the King. This was really on trend, we think.”
I asked Isaac why the father of our new country was so faithful to English trends in decorating at the same time he was leading a revolution against England’s government. “The tradition of British interior design”—having rooms keyed to one prevalent color in addition to the use of elaborate patterns such as chintz—”That’s how Washington started. That British sense of personal style is deeply ingrained,” she said.
Further down the road, that style would evolve into something less romantic and more French-influenced and neoclassical, as you can see in the dining room, “but he never gets away from his roots.”
In reproducing this room, Mount Vernon called upon many modern artisans to recreate what might have been there.
They called on Mack S. Headley & Sons in Berryville, VA, to build the vanity, bedstead and cornice:
Natalie Larson of Historic Textile Reproductions in Williamsburg fabricated the bed and crib drapery, slipcovers, curtains and dressing-table cover.
The curators know that the beds were dressed as ornately as you see represented here because they found receipts from upholsterers for “bed furniture,” which is a reference to the draperies. Their most exciting discovery was a 1774 payment to John Ross—the husband of Betsy Ross!—for the fabrication of three such sets of dressings. The cost: 55 pounds—an exorbitant sum in today’s dollars.
The Ross’ were known to be in the upholstery business together before Betsy started contracting with the government to make flags, Isaac said. “This is the only proof that Betsy Ross and George Washington knew each other in 1774.”
Next on Mount Vernon’s list is the yellow bedchamber adjacent to the Chintz Room, and the blue parlor downstairs:
Historians know from records that the room was, indeed, blue in 1799, but the furniture would have been all different, Isaac said, and the walls would have been “chock full” of family portraits. “Every wall surface would have been covered.” The British influence would still be strong here, too. “It would have been British. It would have been more elaborate.”
The detail I’m most in love with is Washington’s coat of arms over the fireplace—all that trim and plasterwork is how it looked originally:
See the stripes topped by three stars in the coat of arms? It’s the DC logo! The city adopted it directly, Isaac said. Who knew?
This all just goes to proves that everything old can be brand new again, and it’s thrilling to know that even in a property that’s been studied so extensively for over two centuries, new information and updated designs are still coming out. For those of you who haven’t been in a while, it’s worth a return visit.