For the longest time Gunston Hall has been on my list of coveted historic house tours. I grew up in Fairfax County, even attending school in the Gunston District. So I’ll never understand how Gunston Hall was always there, but never visited by me, my family, or on any school trips.
But it remained in my memory and was sparked even more by my friend and marketing client Elizabeth, whose paternal line traces back to the Mason family. She’s been to periodic Mason family gatherings at Gunston Hall and raved about its beauty.
So last November, when my brother invited us for Thanksgiving in the area, I decided to tack on a day to see Gunston Hall, nearby Pohick Church, and Robert E. Lee’s home, Arlington House, on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery.
It turns out that our visit to Gunston Hall coincided with a crucial and long-delayed roof repair job being done on the mansion and because of it, all — ALL — the furniture was removed from the house. That was okay on one level, as we were able to get a tour that was very focused on interior architectural elements and the intricate wood carvings of this stunning Georgian-style gem, built between 1755-1759. (I’ve since checked and all the furniture is back, which of course gives me reason to go see it again soon, and means your visit will include all the bells and whistles.)
Similarly, there was either a broken furnace, or some reason why the heat wasn’t on, and so our tour was c-c-c–o-o-o-l-l-d-d-d. It was one of those situations where it was chillier inside than out, especially since no period fires were roaring against the frigid air. Thank heavens for all the wool I had on which proves the energy-saving adage (and historic practice) to “warm the body, not the building.”
None of this brought an icy feeling to my experience of the place, for several reasons.
First, we had an extremely small tour group (I’ve perfected the art of the serendipitously getting a nearly private tour through a host of timing issues that perhaps one day I’ll share!) This meant it was easy to see and hear, and to ask questions and follow up questions.
Secondly, this house, built by architect William Buckland and master carver William Bernard Sears for for George Mason IV, is truly brilliant. And moreover, it’s seen almost no changes since its original construction, giving us a truly authentic building today. There are a bunch of architectural details explained on the mansion history page of the very informative Gunston Hall Website.
Finally, a superior docent seamlessly provided both the right smattering of familial history and house feature elements to move the story along in an engaging way that was easy to follow while building more curiosity.
If you totally want to go down a historic rabbit hole and geek out over the mansion interiors and their relationship to the lives and purposes of the Mason family, check out this awesome historic guide called the Room Use Study.
Who was George Mason IV?
I was really taken in by the mind and lifestyle of George Mason IV, a man who should but doesn’t really register in the popular American conception of our Founding Fathers at anywhere near the scale of a Washington or Jefferson or Madison — I barely knew a thing about him before my visit.
Mason was, interestingly, an early pusher and vital defender of personal freedom, states’ rights, and a vocal opponent of the slave trade, which he thought should be abolished.
Though he was deeply, critically, crucially behind much of the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of essential American rights, a writer of key phrases that inform iconic American notions of liberty today, and an active debater in the Constitutional Convention, in the end he flatly refused to sign the Constitution over issues like the size of federal government, the failure of the emerging Constitution to end slavery, and most of all, its failure to include an individual bill of rights.
So as for his fame today, maybe you had to sign to get the real props, but there’s a cost to understanding the real and more complex history of our nation in not knowing those debates and positions better today.
In spite of his strong anti-slavery beliefs, Mason likely preferred for everyone to end slavery at once, making it a collective act, instead of one where a man of his time had to stand alone, since he in fact continued to own slaves. This may have been because freeing one’s slaves was illegal in Virginia at the time, and, having inherited slaves, dowry slaves, and children born into slavery to his slaves, he had no choice and likely felt a strong obligation to these persons in his care.
But he was very vocal about the scourge of slavery, writing powerfully and persuasively, and with great depth of feeling, and yet to no avail that,
. . . that slow Poison [slavery]. . . is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentlemen here is born a petty Tyrant. Practiced in the Acts of Despotism & Cruelty, we become callous to the Dictates of Humanity, & all the finer feelings of the Soul. Taught to regard a part of our own Species in the most abject & contemptible Degree below us, we lose that Idea of the dignity of Man which the Hand of Nature had implanted in us, for great & useful purposes.
Mason’s ideas in general — on slavery, government, revolution, farming, trade, religious liberty, and more — had a strong influence on others of his era, and he was constantly in demand if not always answering those demands. Mason was at once at the center of things, and yet also somewhat of a recluse who preferred his farm life, and advising from behind the scenes.
I found all these contradictions kick ass — it’s time we all got to know Mr. Mason both to better understand our nation’s history, its conflicts and inner turmoil, and to better understand our lives as Virginians.
On the date meter
Of course, I love a good stroll through history lane, so I give this outing big ups on the dating meter, whether for new relations or old. Gorgeous architecture, well-appointed gardens and grounds, lots to learn, and a mini history museum that I haven’t even mentioned yet — what’s not to like?
It will provide conversational topics far into the night and many days beyond. No self-respecting Virginian (or area local) should miss seeing it.
— Lindsay Curren, Girl Goes Virginia
10709 Gunston Road
Mason Neck, VA 22079
Mansion & Museum 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Daily
Grounds close at 6:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, & New Year’s Day.
Adults $10/ Seniors $8
Children under 6 free, ages 6 – 18 – $5
Friends of Gunston Hall – Free