Ann Pamela Cunningham (1816-1875)

ann pamela cunningham

Forerunner in historic preservation, Ann Pamela Cunningham was born in 1816, and was raised on a prosperous South Carolina plantation.   In 1853, when her mother sailed past Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home in Northern Virginia on the Potomac River, she was appalled by its dilapidated state.  She wrote to her daughter, “I was painfully distressed at the ruin and desolation of the home of Washington, and the thought passed through my mind: Why was it the women of his country did not try to keep it in repair, if the men could not do it?” 

Ann Cunningham was inspired by her mother’s thoughts and turned them into action.  At risk of violating social taboo, Cunningham sent a letter to the Charleston Mercury in December 1853, asking the women of the south to join together and save Mount Vernon.  Her appeal was reprinted in other newspapers and led to the formation of small societies and donations throughout the south.  The positive response encouraged Cunningham to extend her request to women in the northern states.  Interested women formed the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union in 1854. 

The original plan Cunningham formulated was to ask women to donate money through their governors, who would send the money to the governor of Virginia for the state to purchase Mount Vernon.  However, with tensions between the North and the South increasing in the years leading up to the Civil War, the Virginia government declined to help at that time. 

Cunningham decided that the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association would purchase the home itself.  By 1858, after leading a grassroots fundraising effort and receiving thousands of dollars from people throughout the country, Cunningham met with John Augustine Washington III, the owner of the building and George Washington’s great-grandnephew, to buy it from him.  When he refused, Cunningham met with his wife.  On April 6, 1858, Washington signed a contract, selling Mount Vernon to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ association for $200,000.  The terms were $18,000 down, with an additional $57,000 to be paid no later than the first of the year. The rest was to be paid in three annual installments.  Within the next two years, thousands of people donated to the fund, including President James Buchanan. The Association paid Mount Vernon’s purchase price in full on December 9, 1859 - more than two years ahead of the deadline - and took possession on the 128th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, February 22, 1860.
Other people suggested turning the property into an old soldier’s home or tearing down the home to create a memorial park with marble statues of national heroes, but Cunningham wanted to preserve and restore the home exactly as it was.

Today, historic Mount Vernon attracts over one million visitors each year.  The Association, which is still all female and still presides over Mount Vernon, was the first historic preservation group in the nation and is credited with inspiring the preservation of thousands of other invaluable historic sites across the country.

 

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Books:

  • de Forest, Elizabeth Kellam. The Gardens & Grounds at Mount Vernon: How George Washington Planned and Planted Them. Mount Vernon, Va.: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association of the Union, 1982.
  • Johnson, Gerald White. Mount Vernon: The Story of a Shrine: An Account of the Rescue and Continuing Restoration of George Washington’s Home.
  • Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union. Mount Vernon, an Illustrated Handbook.


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