George Washington: a dream barn for the first president of a new nation
On Sunday, October 28, 1792, five days before the start of the second U.S. presidential election, which was held from Friday, November 2 to Wednesday, December 5, George Washington enclosed a design for a sixteen-sided (decahexagonal) brick barn with his letter to his estate manager, Anthony Whiting. The President expressed his expectation that Anthony would supervise the construction by Thomas Green, overseer of Mount Vernon’s carpenters, in time for the next harvesting of wheat. Anthony succumbed to consumption and rheumatism on June 21, 1793. Six months later, in December 1793, William Pearce, an experienced farmer from nearby Kent County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, succeeded to the careworn position, which entailed weekly reports back and forth with the President.
George Washington designed his sixteen-sided barn as a grain processing and storage facility for Dogue Run Farm, one of four working farms (Muddy Hole, River, and Union) on his 7,600-acre plantation at Mount Vernon, Virginia. The design called for nested polygons, with the exterior sixteen sides decreasing to eight for the interior granary. The second story treading floor was circular. One side of the barn was banked to the second story in order to allow a direct, ground-level access to the threshing floor. Horses reported to the upper level threshing site by way of earthen ramps. An innovation was the creation of open spaces between floorboards to allow grain, separated from stalks by the horses’ treading, to fall down into the granary below. The President envisaged experimentation in determining the perfect spacing distance between floorboards.
Construction materials specified by the President included white oak for the threshing floor, cypress for the roof, and pine for everything else. The barn’s masonry used English brick bond, in which headers (facing with wide short side of bricks) alternated rows with stretchers (facing with long narrow side of bricks).
The cypress roof, although appearing steep, was sloped at about 43 degrees, which fell within the typical pitch range of 42 to 48 degrees for barn architecture in the eighteenth century. Steep pitches were favored for their encouragement of fast runoff, which reduced soggy pooling of rain or snow on roof shingles.
Construction of the President’s innovative barn, a project dear to his heart, stalled because of delays in laying the brick foundation.
- In at least a trio of letters in 1793, dated February 17, March 3, and April 29, the President reminded his nephew, William Augustine Washington (November 25, 1757 – October 2, 1810), of his prior promise to supply Mount Vernon with oyster shells, which were direly necessary for lime in making mortar for laying the barn’s foundation. Because spoilage did not occur during storage, oyster shells were the President’s preferred source for lime.
- In his letter of April 28, 1793, the President expressed his gladness that Anthony had found a temporary supply of lime and his hope that laying the foundation would occur immediately.
In March 1794, the President finally realized his dream of a better barn for his ancestral home.
- In his letter of March 9, 1794 to William Pearce, the President expressed gladness that Thomas Green and his crew essentially had finished the barn.
- In his letter of March 16th – 17th, 1794, to William Pearce, the President discussed the final concern in the barn’s architecture: the safety of horses’ hooves from catching or turning and the efficient downflow of separated grain heads necessitated precision in the spaced placement of threshing floorboards
- In his letter dated March 30, 1794, to William Pearce, the President agreed with the estate manager’s finding of 1 ½ inch interstitial spaces as the correct spacing between each threshing floorboard.
George Washington’s sixteen-sided barn survived until the 1870s. A glass plate negative, taken shortly before the barn’s demise, testified to its derelict condition.
Resurrection: George Washington, Pioneer Farmer
At Mount Vernon on Friday, September 27, 1996, the dedication of replicas of George’s 16-sided treading barn and its associated stables and corn houses celebrated the completion of “George Washington: Pioneer Farmer,” a project of more than five years. With a wealth of information on the structures uncovered through researching sources such as George Washington’s correspondence during his presidency, the initial idea of reconstruction of the barn and outbuildings for use as an interpretive space was expanded to authentic replication for use as a working complex.
During the construction phase of the meticulous reconstruction, Mount Vernon crew and consultants regularly faced perplexities posed by the barn’s unusual shape. The most demanding, ongoing challenges involved a multiplicity of calculations to assure smooth, sturdy framing of pieces which joined at various angles along the structural units (floor, roof, walls). Even the cypress shingles required an unusual arrangement of butting rather than the normal pattern of alternately superimposed rows.
An interesting realization for the reconstructors was that the 18 months required for them to complete five structures (the barn, two stables, two corn houses), with such advantages as pocket calculators and sawmills, was about the same or only two months less than the 18 to 20 months required for Thomas Green and his crew to construct four structures (the barn, two stables, one corn house). Most of the wood used by Thomas Green was prepared, not by a sawmill, but instead by hand hewing and pit sawing.
A visit to the four-acre Pioneer Farm section of Mount Vernon evokes admiration, not only for George Washington’s ingenuity, but also for Thomas Green’s skill.
“A Circular Barn.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon. 2014. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Web. www.mountvernon.org/visit-his-estate/preserving-his-estate/restoration-projects/16-sided-barn
Patrick, Christine Sternberg, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Volume 11: August 1792 – January 1793. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2002.
Patrick, Christine Sternberg, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Volume 12: January – May 1793. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2005.
Patrick, Christine Sternberg, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Volume 13: 1 June – 31 August 1793. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2007.
Patrick, Christine Sternberg, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Volume 14: 1 September – 31 December 1793. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
Patrick, Christine Sternberg, ed. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series. Volume 15: 1 January – 30 April 1794. Charlottesville and London: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
Pogue, Dennis J. “16-Sided Barn.” George Washington’s Mount Vernon: Education > Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington > Agriculture. 2014. Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Web. www.mountvernon.org/educational-resources/encyclopedia/dogue-run-barn
Snowden, W. H. (William H.) Some Old Historic Landmarks of Virginia and Maryland Described in a Hand-Book for the Tourist over the Washington, Alexandria and Mount Vernon Electric Railway. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1894.