George Mason’s Gunston Hall – A Colonial Virginia Gem
Gunston Hall, built c. 1759 for George Mason and his first wife Ann, was one of the finest colonial American homes and is notable for its elaborate and innovative interiors. The house served as a private residence until the mid-20th century and over the course of nearly two hundred years, modifications were made to accommodate the changing needs of the residents, but a remarkable amount of original historic fabric survived. Extensive research and restoration work has been done and remains ongoing in order to return the house and grounds to their original appearance to the greatest extent possible.
In 1735 George Mason inherited 5000 acres from his father on a peninsula jutting into the Potomac River situated eight miles south of Mount Vernon and four miles west of the King’s Highway, a major north-south thoroughfare in the 18th century. In 1750 he married Ann Eilbeck and they had twelve children, nine of whom survived to adulthood. To accommodate his growing family, Mason started construction on Gunston Hall in 1754 which was finished in 1759. Given Mason’s prominent role as a statesman during the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, his status as a successful planter and the property’s proximity to the King’s Highway, Mason would have expected a lot of visitors and he had his house built accordingly.
The restrained exterior and basic layout of the house are attributed to Mason with much of the construction being done by enslaved craftsmen whose names are today unknown. For the interiors, Mason employed William Buckland, who had trained as a carpenter and joiner, and carver William Bernard Sears, both of whom came to Virginia on indenture from London. The public spaces were meant to impress visitors with the latest styles – while chinoiserie was popular in Britain in the early 18th century, it was virtually unknown in America when Gunston Hall was built and the dining room (pictured at top) is the earliest example of this style in Virginia.
Original wallpaper did not survive, so period patterns were selected for the hallway (made by Waterhouse Wallhangings) and dining room which were recreated using period wood block printing methods. Fragments of red fabric were found under a tack in the parlor, so a red silk damask was installed on the walls there. The fireplace surrounds were altered over the years, but have been restored to match the original woodwork that survived and the niches (also known as bowfats or beaufats) in the parlor are original to the house. The portraits in the parlor of George Mason and his first wife Ann are the only known likenesses of them and are later copies of earlier works.
The relatively modest size of Gunston Hall provides an excellent opportunity to observe the transition in interior decoration from the public to semi-private to private spaces in the home. The great parlor, dining room (pictured at top) and entryway were public spaces and are the most lavishly decorated. The two rooms across the hall, the little parlor and the master bedroom, were semi-private spaces. The little parlor was Mason’s office and a family dining room. The bedroom would have also served as an office of sorts for the lady of the house (Mason’s first wife Ann Eilbeck until her death in 1773, his daughter Ann after wife Ann’s death until he married his second wife Sarah Brent in 1780) where she managed the household and kept valuable items secured.
There are two stairways in the house – in between the little parlor and the bedroom is a narrow service stairway with steep stairs which would have been used by enslaved workers and servants and stands in stark contrast to the grand stairway in the entry hall. There were seven bedrooms and a storage room on the second floor and the areas which cannot be seen from the first floor are quite spare – no wallpaper, simple woodwork. There was a hierarchy to these rooms though – the bedrooms in the corners were larger and had fireplaces which would have made them more comfortable in the winter.
The landscape at Gunston Hall is in the midst of an ambitious makeover. Over the centuries, trees and plants were put in, many of them were lost and replanted with new species, and the original boxwoods in the garden succumbed to blight. Plans for Mason’s original landscape survive and looking out over the garden from the river side of the house, the original view would have been a pleasure garden with flowering plants in the front with a row of espaliered fruit trees to screen a kitchen garden in the back. The long row of magnolias and cedars along the drive will be replanted with cherry trees in Mason’s original design which created an optical illusion so that visitors standing in the middle of the doorway would only see one tree on each side of the path.
George Mason died in 1792 and the house stayed in the Mason family until 1867. It remained a private residence until 1949 when the house and approximately 550 of the original acres was acquired by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today the site is operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America – I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and look forward to returning to see how this special house and property evolves!