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George Washington presidential library opens with big assist from Las Vegas foundation

MOUNT VERNON, Va. — A Las Vegas foundation’s embrace of George Washington came to fulfillment on Friday when a library dedicated to the first president — and built with a $38 million donation — opened to the public.

The 2010 gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation was the largest ever to the Mount Vernon estate of the founding father. It provided the ground floor for a fundraising campaign that topped $106 million.

The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington is named after the longtime Las Vegan who is chairman of the foundation, which is named after the late media owner Donald W. Reynolds.

At an opening ceremony before an audience of more than 900 people, Smith said the foundation’s interest in George Washington dates back a dozen years when he was told by former Mount Vernon president James C. Rees that some history texts were devoting more space to Marilyn Monroe.

“That was an alarming trend we wanted to see turned around,” Smith said.

The library donation was the latest in a series of the foundation’s financial commitments to Washington’s legacy, dating to 2001 when it spent $20 million to purchase Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 “Lansdowne” portrait of the first president that was being put up for auction, and another $10 million to provide space for it through renovation of the National Portrait Gallery.

In 2003, another $24 million in grants helped build an education center and museum at Washington’s historic estate on the Potomac River 16 miles south of Washington, D.C.

The 45,000-square foot library, built of limestone and wood on 15 acres across from the estate’s main grounds, houses 103 volumes of about 1,200 books that were owned by Washington, and other collections of manuscripts, rare books and archival material from the 18th century. An adjoining residence will be home to visiting scholars and researchers.

“It’s a testament to (Washington’s) legacy that all this was accomplished without any help from any government entity,” Smith said.

Washington envisioned a home for his documents at Mount Vernon, but it never came to pass, according to scholars. His library opens 214 years after his death.

“I feel we need to know much more about the individuals who shaped our nation,” said historian and author David McCullough, whose book “1776” was about the revolutionary period. “We can never know enough about George Washington.”

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow @STetreaultDC on Twitter.

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