Washington’s Final Wishes

By Steven Ginsberg


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George Washington’s dated signature on his will, which is being painstakingly restored by Christine Smith. Photo by Lois Raimondo, The Washington Post

Christine Smith enters the vault. She slides over to flat file cabinets in a rear corner, opens the top drawer and lifts a sheet of white cardboard, revealing tattered, tannish pages with script penned in dark ink.

Smith plucks one. It is Page 25 of the last will and testament of George Washington–on which he divvies parts of his estate among relatives–and she takes it to her desk, where she will mend holes caused by unusual wear and tear.

“This is humbling,” Smith says as she places the sheet on her desk in her Alexandria office.

This is a restoration project, the project, that Smith has been working on for more than two years. She alone has been entrusted with refurbishing what historians describe as one of the most precious relics of early America, the final thoughts of a man who died 201 years ago today.

“I think it’s probably one of the two most important things George Washington ever wrote,” said Jim Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon, placing it on a par with his farewell address as president.

Its value is not lost on Smith. For the first nine months she had the 44-page document, she barely touched it. Too awed and intimidated to jump right in, she spent her time on other projects, all the while studying Washington, the will and William Berwick, the only other professional to restore the document.

“Every now and then, I would go in and look at it,” she recalled.

Fairfax County, which has owned the will since it was filed there shortly after Washington’s death in 1799, allocated $100,000 for the restoration and didn’t give Smith a deadline. Smith, 51, a graduate of the Winterthur Museum-University of Delaware art conservation program and a former paper conservator for the Smithsonian, has restored several of Washington’s manuscripts and art by such notables as Rembrandt.

She is restoring the will in stages, so no page has been completed. She expects to finish early next year, and her work will initially be on display at Mount Vernon, though the document probably will return to Fairfax.

The first major step was the removal of a protective silk coating placed over the pages by Berwick. She then washed the sheets in water (it’s okay, they can take it) to clear potential stains and protect the pages from acidic elements in the ink. A protective gelatin coating was applied. Then Smith began mending.

On this day, she is shoring up a hole in Page 25. Smith takes a small glass of methyl cellulose out of a refrigerator. The cellulose, clear and gloppy, will be mixed with wheat starch for seven minutes in a flat, glass dish to form an adhesive.

Smith begins mixing, surrounded by dozens of scalpels, brushes, spatulas and other instruments used to manipulate fragments of paper. There is a small radio in a corner that is normally tuned to NPR, not that Smith ever really hears it.

There are many rules to this business. No drinks, obviously. No jewelry, nail polish or lipstick either. Hands must be washed incessantly to wipe away harmful oils. And if the phone rings, Smith e-v-e-r s-o s-l-o-w-l-y backs away from her work space before racing across the room to answer it.

“Now it looks pretty good,” Smith says after a few minutes, rubbing her solution between her fingers. But it’s not quite sticky enough.

Restoring historic documents is not titillating work, Smith says, as she continues to knead with a long brush. “There are these intermediate periods that go on for days and weeks and months. How you get there is anything but dramatic.”

The drama lies in how the will got to Smith, traveling almost full circle from Mount Vernon to Smith’s nondescript, second-story office a few miles from Washington’s home. The office houses her two-person firm, Conservation of Art on Paper Inc., and sits above a SunTrust bank branch. It is on Mount Vernon Avenue.

With Union troops approaching in 1861, the clerk of the court of Fairfax County gave the will to his wife to hide. She folded it into her petticoat and took it to a nearby plantation, where the will was buried in a wine cellar. Later, it was transported to Richmond, before being returned to Fairfax after the war.

The journey, burial and humidity weakened the paper and tore holes. In an attempt to fortify the pages, someone sewed thread across the center of some sheets. In 1910, Berwick, a Library of Congress employee, mended the pages with a mix of flour, cornstarch and water and covered each page with the silk coating that is now outdated.

Smith rubs her fingers again. She adds more methyl cellulose and a touch of deionized water to get the right viscosity.

Having finished making the adhesive, Smith reaches for the material that will be pasted into the hole, tosa tengujo, a sheer Japanese tissue noted for its strength. She colored portions of the tissue in shades of tan to match each page of the will. She can make a perfect match only on sunny days because artificial light is misleading.

Smith pauses before proceeding. “He has beautiful handwriting,” she says. “His thoughts were very profound.”

His magnanimity shines in the first section, in which he frees his slaves upon the death of his wife and provides money to establish three schools, one for poor children.

Washington the soldier is seen in his dramatic statement on Page 19 that his swords are to be unsheathed only “. . . for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights.”

“I think [Washington’s] is probably the most revealing” will of all the presidents’, said Herbert Collins, former executive director of American history at the Smithsonian and author of “Wills of the Presidents.”

It is history of the highest order. “It was really overwhelming for a while,” Smith says of the task. “I don’t want to say I was . . . catatonic. But I came to be stopped by the object in a way you wouldn’t be if it was a more routine thing.”

She puts on a head loupe with magnifying lenses to see the exact spot of the mend. She cuts a tiny piece of the tissue and then pares it a little more. It drops on her white lab coat. She retrieves it with tweezers. “My hands,” Smith calls them.

She places the one-by-four-millimeter tissue on a piece of glass and applies the adhesive to the back of the tissue. With her fingernail and a Teflon spatula, she carefully positions it on the will and pushes it into the fibers of the paper. Smith covers it with a weight and leaves it for 20 minutes to dry.

She has just completed one tiny mend on one page of the final and lasting words of the first president of the United States.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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