looking back the avenue
This morning we opened up the guidebooks and my laptop and spent some time hunting somewhere to go visit. After eliminating Lincoln's summer cottage (not sure about snow removal from the streets of DC) and the Walters Art Museum (Dad not keen on driving in Baltimore), we came across Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason.
"Who?" I asked. My question captures, unfortunately, the common reaction of modern Americans when this founding father is named. It is ironic that this man who yearned for privacy yet was as well-known as his neighbor George Washington in their day is now largely forgotten by the history books, his vital contributions to American liberties practically forgotten.
George Mason IV was the fourth in his family line to live in Virginia.
However, when he designed and built his elegant home, he chose to name it after his ancestral maternal home in England, a place he had never seen. Georgian in style, the house's symmetry quickly strikes visitors. Touring a week after record snowfall, we were first struck by the icy entrance road and damaged trees. We walked into the Visitor Center about five minutes before the next tour of the house so we had enough time for a restroom break and then headed up the avenue to the two-story brick building.
Our guide ushered us quickly into the entrance hall and shut the door against the cold. We sat down in green chairs for an introduction to Gunston Hall and its history as well as that of the family.
- Took four years to build
- Originally sat on 5500 acres (the property now consists of 550 acres)
- Sold out of the family following the Civil War (during which it is rumored that it was damaged but this contradicts other stories of the mansion from the time period)
- Hosted many famous names ranging from George Washington to Eleanor Roosevelt to the late Queen Mum of England
- Administration building of this facility is named after the final private owner of the property, L.
reproduction of the front hall wallpaper
- George Mason IV married 16-year old Anne. They would have 12 children over their 23-year marriage; 9 would survive to adulthood
- After Anne's death at age 39, George Mason was a widower for 7 years before marrying Sara who added a nephew to the brood
- George considered himself a planter foremost, his work as a politician was not his primary ambition
Following the introduction to the house and the family, our tour guide continued by focusing on the entrance hall. This was the family's living and entertaining space especially in the summer when the doors on either end of the 40 foot long hall would be opened to allow breezes to cool the space. The elaborate wallpaper was a design called Pillar and Arches and featured large white urns against a yellow background; while we do not know the exact decor in this hallway, this pattern was a contemporary of Mason's choice.
A false door on the right side created symmetry with the doorway to another hallway on the left. A wide stairwell ascended at the end of the hall. The most notable feature was the intricate woodwork, months in the carving.
- Faux white columns
- Little flowers underneath the end of each brown step
- A repeated pattern carved in squares along the ceiling
- A closed-pinecone-like bulb hanging from the midpoint of the hall's ceiling
We then moved from the hallway into the formal sitting room, the front room on the right side of the house. Here guests during Mason's time would have enjoyed games and dancing. Our tour guide apologized; the room was about to receive a repainting, probably in a darker tone of the yellow currently adorning the woodwork.
Therefore, the furniture and decorations were mostly removed. However, the only surviving chinoise room from colonial times (or maybe one of only a handful) still was beautiful.
- Wallpapered in a repeated pattern of birds, branches, flowers, and butterflies; an English interpretation of Chinese wall art
- A huge fireplace with a design of interlinked circles (the fireplace was one of eight in the house)
- More intricate woodwork, very elaborate designs over each of the doorways, a few layers even
- A camouflaged pipe in the corner, part of the fire suppressant system
- Two locked closets flanking the fireplace
From here we walked into the formal dining room. This room held the most pieces that belonged to the Mason family versus simply being period pieces.
modified Gothic window on the back porch
Our tour guide pointed out the Chippendale chairs, a silver bowl (that was also used for baptisms), and a salt cellar.
- Wood trim around the doors, fireplace, and ceiling carved in a more flowery design
- Two blue sets of open shelves on either side of fireplace, their edges trimmed in gold, the tops smoothly rounded
- Red damask covering the walls
Crossing the hallway to the more private side of the house, we first looked at a narrow set of steps that created a servant/slave access to the second floor. Our tour guide picked up what looked like a thick wooden pole about my height. To our surprise, he opened the pole out into a skinny ladder. While this pole ladder was a modern reproduction, in the little parlor in the back was the authentic pole ladder, possibly given to the Masons by Thomas Jefferson.
from the back porch
We continued down the hallway and into a room that screamed green, the walls in a very vivid shade of the color. This was the Chamber, the master bedroom. George Mason slept here but his wife Anne controlled the space. She dressed her children, ran the business of the home, and entertained her lady friends all in this space. Now out of the public eye the room was less elaborate, more family oriented.
- Copper in the paint created the vibrant green, the original paint still in the closet has turned brown over the span of two centuries
- While the closet housed folded clothing, the children also knew it as the home of "the green doctor," a whip used by Anne for discipline
- The master bed adorned in yellow drapery, dozens of feet long
Across the hallway, in the back left corner of the house was the little parlor which also served as the family dining area at times, gaming and gambling overflow space for large parties, and Mason's workspace.
well in the enclosed yard, view from second floor
- A desk in the middle of the room is the focal point, possibly where Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, a model for our Bill of Rights, the crucial first addition to the Constitution
- Curved stool chair with a cushion that concealed a chamberpot
- A painted canvas floor cloth in a pattern of red and black diamonds
In the back of the main hall, our guide spoke about a problem in design Mason had encountered. He had placed a closet in the middle of the house, no light available for the larger room. Putting in a window to the outside would disrupt the symmetry of the Georgian style. His solution? To place a window in the closet that looked out on the main hallway and used light from the skylight. Thanks to this "robber window," Mason achieved his goal of a lit closet without losing the balanced effect.
snowed in garden
At the back door beneath the stairs, we looked out onto a back porch that had the first use in colonial America of the modified Gothic arch. Beyond the porch waited a very snow covered garden area. The hedges were much taller than their 12-inch height during Mason's time, but these plants were remnants from the 1700's.
The guide gave us an overview of the upstairs and then we were free to explore the second floor on our own. Mom and I eagerly went up the narrow staircase, Dad following us. At the top, I pushed on the low handle on the safety door and stepped into a decent-sized hallway. I looked towards the landing of the main stairwell and immediately grinned. Instead of a wide open space, three beautiful columns supported the ceiling, graceful arches adding a touch of beauty to an otherwise functional space.
Gunston Hall from back on the avenue
We peeked into each of the seven bedrooms on this floor.
- Blue trim in a couple of the rooms
- Steps up to the attic in the second room we saw
- On a rust-colored bedspread, the blue coat of Mason's manservant
From the windows on the ends of the hall we were able to look down into the side yard with the kitchen, laundry, and well or down to the school house where the Mason children had learned. We walked down the main stairs and then exited into the side yard. We stopped in the kitchen for a minute or two before following the path back to the museum/visitor center. The snow made further exploration a bit difficult and unappealing. We browsed the museum which had portraits of Mason family members including George Mason and his son whose memoirs described life at Gunston Hall.
diorama of Gunston
We also saw period pieces ranging from dinnerware to teapots to navigational equipment to chairs. A diorama gave an overhead view of the farm during its active years. Another corridor presented an overview of Mason's life and his political contributions.
We browsed the gift shop where I picked up some postcards of the interior of the home since photography was not allowed inside. We then watched the introductory movie to Gunston Hall which we had skipped earlier in order to make the tour on time. It was the typical short film to give background, nothing exciting, fairly basic. Most of the information we had already learned from either the tour or the museum. However, I liked the final quotation from George Mason. I don't remember the exact words but the quotation was advice to his sons along this line: Stay out of the public eye of politics but if you are called to that duty, serve well.
His advice came from his own life experiences and indeed, George Mason served America well, his dedication to the concept of the Bill of Rights paving the way for the preservation of our basic liberties.