America's First Action Hero

Third-grader Ben Hewitt of Gainesville, Va., looks at examples of research exhibits in a "forensic laboratory" that describes how scientists and artists determined what George Washington looked like, at the opening of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center at Mount Vernon, Oct. 27, 2006, in Mount Vernon, Va.
AP/Free Lance-Star, Robert Martin
Amid Revolutionary War re-enactors and a fife and drum corps, the public got its first glimpse of changes at George Washington's Mount Vernon estate that officials hope will inject new life into the public's image of the Founding Father.

Thousands of tourists and dignitaries on Friday toured the estate's new orientation center, museum and education center, the product of a four-year, $110 million fundraising campaign.

The new attractions portray Washington as the "nation's first action hero," including an 18-minute film highlighting his career as commander of the Continental Army and wax statues depicting him during various stages of his life.

Mount Vernon officials said the public — especially schoolchildren — know less about Washington than they used to, and they also worried that Washington was increasingly perceived as a dour, stodgy historical figure.

The new attractions educate tourists about Washington in a way that Mount Vernon struggled to do when the restored mansion served as the uncontested centerpiece of the estate.

Officials say the mansion will remain the "crown jewel" of Mount Vernon, and the new buildings are carefully tucked into four acres of the estate as unobtrusively as possible.

The exhibits include a theater with rumbling seats to coincide with cannon fire and fake snow that falls during a scene depicting Washington crossing the Delaware River on Christmas 1776 to defeat Hessian mercenaries in Trenton, N.J. New exhibit space allows for display of artifacts like Washington's pistol, sword and false teeth.

The new attractions have received criticism. The Washington Post's architecture critic drew unfavorable comparisons to a Disney World experience and lamented that knowledgeable visitors might not learn much in the education center.

Generally, though, tourists on Friday were impressed.

"I think they do a good job of balancing the information with all the multimedia presentations," said Tom Dempsey of Arlington.

"It's definitely an improvement," Anuj Verma, a senior at Irvington High School in Fremont, Cal., who was making a return visit to Mount Vernon as part of a class trip.

School tours count for about a third of Mount Vernon's 1 million annual visitors.

"Before, they didn't give you much information about George Washington himself," Verma said. "You kind of just saw the house."

  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at and