MOUNT VERNON, Va. -- In a clearing of red and white oak and Virginia pines a few hundred yards from George Washington's historic home, shovels were buried into storm-moistened soil Thursday to break ground on a national library for the nation's first president and founding father.
A 45,000-square-foot library, to be built primarily through a major donation from the Las Vegas-based Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, will house 87 books owned by Washington and 500 letters and ledgers bearing his writing as well as books about him and 2,500 rare books from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Mount Vernon trustees said that when it opens in 2013, the center should be a focal point for research into the first president and hopefully will help revive interest in a giant they fear is fading in the nation's collective memory.
The groundbreaking was held on the anniversary of the date in 1789 when a courier arrived at Mount Vernon to notify the Revolutionary War general of his selection as the first president of the United States. Two days later Washington left for New York City, where he was inaugurated on April 30.
"George Washington wanted a library. He wrote that he wanted a library, and it's taken one heck of a long time," said Gay Hart Gaines, Florida regent of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, which owns and maintains the estate. "George Washington is the man without whom quite simply we would not have become a country, and we all know that."
DEFENSE SECRETARY SPEAKS
Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered the keynote speech to about 900 people at the groundbreaking. He said modern leaders continue to draw lessons from Washington's service in the military and as president, and from what Gates said was his self-effacing demeanor.
"No American president deserves the honor of a presidential library more than George Washington. The construction of this library affirms the continued relevance of Washington to the challenges and dilemmas facing our leaders."
The Reynolds Foundation donated $38 million for the library, the lion's share of the $47 million project. In recognition, the library will be named after the foundation's chairman, Mount Vernon trustees said.
The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington will be "the world's intellectual headquarters for everything to do with George Washington," said Mount Vernon President James Rees.
Smith said the foundation's goal with the donation "is to make sure the current generation and future generations don't forget the significance of George Washington's contribution to the birth of our great country."
Smith also applauded Mount Vernon caretakers for funding the library and other improvements to the historic site through private donations .
"I think that is the way President Washington would have wanted," Smith said, later adding that Washington in his time was an entrepreneur besides being a general and political leader.
The library grant was the latest contribution to the legacy of George Washington from the organization built on the fortune of Donald W. Reynolds, the late media baron whose holdings in Nevada included the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Nevada Appeal in Carson City and radio and television stations.
The Reynolds Foundation previously donated $24 million toward The Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center on the grounds of Mount Vernon, the sprawling estate on the banks of the Potomac River about 25 miles south of Washington, D.C. It opened in 2006.
The foundation in 2001 granted the National Portrait Gallery $20 million to buy the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington known as the Lansdowne portrait. It hangs in a dedicated space of the gallery that the Reynolds Foundation helped renovate with a $75 million donation.
$100 MILLION ENDOWMENT GOALl
Mount Vernon trustees say they fear George Washington and his accomplishments have faded in the nation's collective memory. Rees bemoaned there has never been a major movie about Washington, and while last year's biography of Washington by author Ron Chernow may be a best-seller, it pales compared to a nightly audience of "American Idol."
Rees said Mount Vernon is continuing to raise money for library programs and staff. So far, it has raised $70 million of its endowment goal of $100 million.
"I think this will help spread the word about George Washington, which I think is almost at a low," said Smith, who wielded one of the gold shovels used to break ground. "I hope that what is generated here will raise some awareness. Who knows what will come out, particularly to the youth of the country, which is where I think the interest needs to be."
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760.