Caroline Spurry ’01 laughs and admits she’s handier around the house than her husband.
“Both of our fathers were builders,” she says, “but I got more of the builder’s gene.”
It helps that Spurry, who was a business administration major at F&M but went on to receive a master’s in historic preservation from George Washington University, helps to restore and maintain one of the nation’s oldest and best-known homes.
As an architectural historian at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, plantation home of the first U.S. president, the 39-year-old Spurry works with a small team to squeeze as much knowledge from the site as possible.
“I started out not knowing if it was even feasible to do this as a job,” she says. “Now here I am, doing it ... and at the home of one of the most important people in our history.”
She calls it her dream job. “I think there are probably other jobs that are just as exciting and rewarding, but I don’t know if there is anything that’s more exciting,” Spurry says.
Spurry began the job after 10 years as a financial statement auditor. She initially went into accounting because it seemed like a responsible career path. She doesn’t regret the experience—it’s helped her drive fundraising efforts at Mount Vernon.
“But I quickly realized it was not meant to be my life’s work,” Spurry says. “You either jump on the train and ride it down the tracks as far as you can, or you make a change and do it while you’re young enough to make that change.”
She soon realized her passions—history, architecture and writing—could lead to a meaningful career. In 2014, a professor at GWU assigned her to write a historic structures report on the kitchen at Mount Vernon. She never left.
Born and raised in Easton, Md., Spurry now lives in a 70-year-old house in Arlington, Va., with husband Steve, who works at the Federal Reserve. Her home, she notes, is “relatively new” compared to her workplace, where construction started in the 1730s.
Ironically, she says, she kept so busy at F&M—tennis, a minor in English, electives in history and the classics—she never visited local historical sites such as Wheatland or Rock Ford.
“We’re never going to be able to go back in time,” she notes, explaining her ongoing fascination with history. “But buildings and structures are a tangible part of the past that we can interact with. It’s something we can see and touch and feel.”
The Mount Vernon estate was purchased from the last Washington heir in 1858 by the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. Today, Spurry says, the property includes 20 original structures, 26 reconstructions, and several replicas and support structures.
After more than a century and a half of work, one might think Mount Vernon has yielded all its secrets. Not so, Spurry insists.
“It’s a fascinating time. We have the benefit of so much technology that previous generations did not have,” she says. “We’re able to do research a lot faster than people could in the past. We’re able to do a lot more analysis and synthesization of the research, so we can look at it in a more complete or new way.”
There are new techniques for dating materials such as wood, paint and glass that weren’t available to prior generations, and time-honored practices like counting the nails and documenting the type and placement of each. “There’s a lot more to be learned,” she says.
Spurry recently led research projects in the Blue Room and Front Parlor, among others, and is preparing a restoration plan for the western elevation.
“We have a constant rotation of projects,” she says, with a laugh. “We have a near infinite backlog of work to do.”
“We’re never going to be able to go back in time, but buildings and structures are a tangible part of the past that we can interact with. It’s something we can see and touch and feel.”