Washington's Furniture Maker Owned Chester County Home

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Rob Lukens, Ph.D.
Originally Published in the Daily Local News
Release Date: 
April 26, 2012

Washington never slept here, but his furniture maker did.       

Most people know that George Washington's connection to Chester County is through the Revolutionary War. He led continental troops at the Battle of Brandywine, oversaw the Valley Forge encampment and travelled to various parts of the county in between. 

Recently, however, local resident Tom Zadnik made a discovery that connects Chester County to George Washington’s personal life. John Aitken, furniture maker of General Washington's prized Mt. Vernon pieces, called Chester County home for decades. His property is the place current owners Zadnik and Peggy Conway call home today.

Piecing together the life of an early American furniture maker can be a tricky thing. Without diaries, correspondence, or significant references to Aitken in history books, we are left with skeletal details of his life.

What we do know is this - Aitken, a Scottish immigrant, lived and worked in Philadelphia, which served as the capital city of the United States 1790-1800. According to Aitken’s will, he owned "four houses situated at the southwest corner of sixth and Chestnut streets" in the shadow of Independence Hall.  From about 1775 to 1800, he operated a successful furniture and cabinetmaking business which caught the eye of the most important man in the nation - President George Washington, who lived at Sixth and Market Streets.

According to Susan Schoelwer, Curator at George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, Museum and Gardens, we don't know exactly how Washington became acquainted with Aitken's work.  Proximity to the President's House and Congress Hall is a likely explanation.  Aitken's reputation and advertisements are other possibilities.

When Washington's second term as president was coming to a close and he eagerly looked to retire to Mount Vernon, Washington turned to Aitken to provide furnishings for his Virginia home. Washington's account books list a variety of 27 fine furniture pieces ordered in 1797, which included a set of 24 chairs, two sideboards, and a secretary bookcase. These are considered among the finest pieces owned by Washington, which he unfortunately only enjoyed for less than three years until his death in 1799.   

We don't have photographs, paintings, or drawings of Aitken himself, so we have no idea what he looked like. But his handsome work still survives. His pieces are at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, National Gallery of Art in D.C., and of course, they adorn the rooms of Mount Vernon. Since the  pieces Aitken made for Washington became scattered over the last two centuries, officials at Mount Vernon are on a constant quest to identify and return his original furniture to Mount Vernon.

Aitken's Chester County connections came through his marriage to Jane McDowell. Perhaps John met Jane through her father, Captain James McDowell, a decorated Revolutionary War veteran. The McDowell family owned property in Upper Oxford Township, and around 1815 Aitken moved the family from Philadelphia to McDowell's rolling estate of farmland and woods.  Upper Oxford 1817 tax documents list his holdings at 147 acres, $1,500 worth of buildings, four horses, and five cattle for a total worth of $7,550.

Current owners Tom Zadnik and Peggy Conway discovered the connection serendipitously.  In fact, as admirers of Mount Vernon, they knew of Aitken before they realized they lived in a house he built and owned. Zadnik discovered the connection during property research at the Chester County Historical Society and the Chester County Archives.

"When we purchased the house, we had no knowledge at all of its significance," Zadnik states, "but the discovery that this was John Aitken's house was absolutely amazing."

The stately Federal-style brick home was built around 1839. It rests on Newark Road (route 896) in Upper Oxford Township, and boasts bold chimneys and original features such as the curved staircase railing and dentil millwork on the mantels in each room. The front entrance is complete with a fan light and sidelights flanking the door. Many other details survive, down to the original front door lock with the maker's mark from London.  

Dale H. Frens, AIA, of Frens and Frens LLC Restoration Architects in West Chester, states that "double-pile, center-passage" country houses such Aitken's were not uncommon even up to the Civil War. The symmetrical design and classical details added through intricate woodwork follow the tenets of the Federal Style quite closely.”

If you're intrigued by this story, you can actually own a piece of history since Tom and Peggy have the remarkable home up for sale. 

As to whether John Aitken ever slept in the house, we'll never know for sure. The home was built around 1839 and references state it was built for his son James.  But since John Aitken owned it, and built it, that's good enough for me. And I'm sure he must have lived with James in the last few years of his life, as John died in approximately 1840. What he's left us today is a house that George Washington himself would have been proud to call home.

Caption (Below): This sideboard is one of two that George Washington purchased from John Aitken in 1797. The piece still resides at Mount Vernon, where it is currently on view in Washington's dining room.  Courtesy of Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.