THE MOUNT VERNON MEMORIAL HIGHWAY was built in 1932 as a commemorative route to George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon in honor of his 200th birthday. It was a model of modern roadway design and was hailed as the most fitting of the memorials marking the event. Patriotic women’s groups, including the Mount Vernon Ladies Association and the Daughters of the American Revolution, wanted to be involved in the planning process but were repeatedly shut out by the engineers and landscape architects designing the parkway. They proposed several schemes that would have allowed individual states to commemorate Washington at distinct places along the roadway. In one proposal, for example, segments of the memorial highway would be designed and planted by each of the original thirteen states, and in another, each state would contribute a species of oaks to the plantings, since at least one species of oak grows in every state. Each of these proposals was rebuffed, and in the end, the women were allowed to sponsor memorial plantings along the roadway, each noted with a bronze plaque identifying the sponsoring group and its memorial purpose. Typically the number and species chosen represented Washington and his legacy; for example, thirteen Virginia cedars from Washington’s boyhood home, representing the original thirteen states, were planted near the entrance to Mount Vernon. Few of the plantings have much stature today; many have died, and of these, only a few have been replanted. What presence they do have, however, adds to a certain domesticity and humaneness that characterizes the parkway: houses face the roadway across a wide, park-like margin, and people saturate the landscape in picnic areas on the river and along a heavily used bicycle and pedestrian trail leading to Mount Vernon. The memorial plantings add an additional and important layer to this human component, one that makes the commemorative role of the parkway more individual and personal than the otherwise modern roadway.
Contributor: Paul Kelsch