American Village acquires Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington

Published 6:24 pm Monday, February 19, 2024

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MONTEVALLO – Columbiana’s Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington will soon have a new home at the American Village after its recent acquisition.

“We are very excited to have this amazing collection coming to American Village,” said Alan B. Miller, president and CEO of American Village. “The addition of the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington to the American Village campus will expand our opportunities to allow students and citizens to engage in the study and appreciation of America’s founding history.”

Founded in 1982 by Karl C. Harrison, a Columbiana banker and philanthropist, the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington provided an important forum for learning about America’s first First Family. Through the foresighted efforts and encouragement of Martha Washington’s granddaughter, Eliza Parke Custis, family heirlooms have been lovingly passed down through generations. In the early 1980s, Shelby County resident Charlotte Smith-Weaver, a sixth generation granddaughter of Martha Washington, decided to share her legacy with the public, providing the basis of the museum.

“The Karl C. Harrison Museum is an extraordinary collection of George Washington memorabilia,” said Tom Walker, founder and president emeritus of American Village. “Shelby County has been honored to be home of this collection since its inception and thanks to the Harrison family it will remain in Shelby County in a new home at the American Village. We all anticipate a bright future for the museum as it serves an even greater audience.”

The Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington collection focuses on art and artifacts from the colonial period through 1865. The collection contains paintings, letters, furniture, porcelain, glassware, silver, jewelry, busts and more. Martha Washington’s prayer book printed in New York in 1783, an original 1787 Samuel Vaughn sketch of Mt. Vernon grounds, writing instruments and tools from George Washington’ s survey case, and an original tintype depicting Robert E. Lee in his uniform for the last time are just a few collection highlights.

“I am extremely pleased to have this collection of Washington family heirlooms, which my family has lovingly passed from one generation to the next, find a new home at American Village,” said Helen Harrison Phillips, daughter of Karl C. Harrison. “Our family’s wish was that the collection stay here in Shelby County, and we cannot think of a better steward of these items than American Village.”

The beauty and craftsmanship of 18th and 19th century furniture is evidenced by a number of carefully preserved pieces from the estates of the Washington family and their descendants. Coin-silver utensils used at Mount Vernon, a 207-piece set of Minton porcelain and an exquisite pair of Sevres vases, circa 1785, from the estate of Augustine Washington, half-brother of George, highlight the display. One highly regarded piece is a walnut games table with tulip and rosewood inlay, circa 1805. The beautiful table belonged to Bushrod Washington, a direct descendant, who inherited Mount Vernon upon Martha’s death. The oldest item in the Museum is the handwritten will of Colonel Daniel Parke, dated 1710. His grandson, Daniel Parke Custis, married Martha Dandridge. After his death Martha married George Washington.

The Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington collection is estimated to be the largest collection of George and Martha Washington artifacts and memorabilia outside of their famous home site, Historic Mount Vernon. It will be housed in the East Wing of Independence Hall, soon to be under construction at American Village. The West Wing of Independence Hall at American Village opened in 2022, and the central portion of is slated to open in 2025. The East Wing, the third and final phase of the Independence Hall project, will be completed by July 4, 2026—America’s 250th Birthday.

American Village celebrates its own 25th anniversary this year, and is also currently planning activities and events to mark the anniversary.