Gretchen McKay

George Mason’s Gunston Hall plantation offers a look at 18-century Virginia life

Gunston Hall was built between 1757 and 1759 in the Georgian styles, which emphasized symmetry and balance. The bricks, laid in a Flemish bond pattern, were made on site. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

MASON NECK, Va. — George Washington’s Mount Vernon tends to get all the attention when it comes to historic homes in the Washington, D.C., area, and deservedly so: One of the most-visited Colonial sites in America, the white mansion with its 21 elegantly appointed rooms offers an authentic glimpse into the 18th-century plantation life of our first president.

And how about that sweeping lawn and its magnificent views of the Potomac River?

It’s not the only historic home worth a visit during Garden Club of Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, which this year runs April 23-30 and features more than 250 sites in all corners of the state.

Twelve miles south on Route 1 on the marshy Mason Neck peninsula stands another gracious estate that in the late 1700s was home to one of Washington’s equally famous counterparts  — George Mason’s Gunston Hall.

It’s not nearly as fancy, or large, as that of his Fairfax County neighbor’s. And its once-formal garden, originally divided into quarters and edged in boxwood, is but an overgrown ghost of its former self. Yet like Mount Vernon, it offers  an intimate look at how a very wealthy plantation owner and sometimes-forgotten founding father would have spent his days when our country was still a collection of colonies.

Need a refresher on George Mason? The writer of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 and father of nine, he was a member of the Continental Congress and also served as a delegate at the monthslong Philadelphia (Constitutional) Convention in 1787.  His claim to fame is that he refused to sign the Constitution when it was finished because it did not have a bill of rights, which he thought was essential. (He’d be vindicated four years later, when Congress ratified 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights.)

Mason was a notoriously private man, and a bit of a curmudgeon. His home was his sanctuary. One of the richest planters in Virginia, Mason spared no expense in bringing his dream to life. A classic example of Georgian architecture,  the two-story structure with its elegant Flemish bond brickwork — crafted from brick made on site — is a study in symmetry and balance. Its 10 dormers (five on each side) and four chimneys are symmetrical with the porticoed entrance on the center axis, with two nine-over-nine windows balanced on either side of it.

Gunston Hall’s Central Passage

The interior, meanwhile, is a fanciful mix of rococo, Gothic and chinoiserie styles that is something of a surprise, given that most homes during Colonial times favored simple decoration. The yellow ochre dining room, dubbed the “Chinese Room,” is particularly stunning with its pagoda-like hoods on the upper walls, wild Chinese wallpaper (a replica of a period design) and scalloped woodwork.  Not to mention a rare treat: Gunston Hall is the only house in Colonial America known to have had this Eastern-style decoration, which was all the rage across the pond in London.

The Palladian Room, with its red silk damask-covered walls and elegant egg-and-dart molding, is equally splendid. The family would have played cards here, or maybe enjoyed a drink from Mason’s distillery with dinner guests, warmed by the large fireplace carved in the then-fashionable rococo design. The gilded beaufats (built-in niches) on either side of the fireplace would have displayed stoneware while the walls held portraits of Mason and his wife, Ann, who was just 16 when they married.

Color was as much a sign of wealth in Colonial times as was intricate detail, and the largest room in the house, the 12-foot-wide Central Passage, delivers on both counts. Used to receive guests and also to teach children dance and manners two weeks out of the year, it’s a grand, welcoming space with a 12-foot, 8-inch ceiling. The intricately carved black walnut staircase speaks especially well of craftsman William Buckland, an Englishman who came to Virginia in 1755 as an indentured worker.

Tourgoers also get to see Mason’s first-floor bed chamber with its emerald-green woodwork and canopied bed, and the neat and plain study with a pair of windowseats where Mason conducted his business; a  pole ladder given to him by Thomas Jefferson leans against the wall. Upstairs, there’s seven dormitory-style bedrooms, although guests looking up the staircase would have imagined something far grander, thanks to a triple arch with fluted columns separating the narrow passageway from a small gallery overlooking the staircase.

Most visitors to Gunston Hall would have traveled by boat along the Potomac River. After arriving at the wharf, they would have walked to the house on a gravel path lined with boxwood. The pedimented river side garden porch served as an outdoor sitting room. Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette

Originally, double rows of black heart cherry trees lined the 1,200-foot drive to the front porch with its Palladian portico. They were planted not on lines perpendicular to the mansion, as expected, but on radial lines projected from the entry — a trick that created a false perspective, making the trees “seem to approach as they recede.” Most guests, however, would have arrived by boat at the rear of the house, as traveling over land was extremely difficult.

At one time, there were at least 30 outbuildings on the 5,000-acre estate, which Mason inherited at age 10, after his father drowned in a sailing accident on the Potomac. Gunston Hall was a working plantation that produced corn, wheat and tobacco for export, and the family had paid employees along with indentured servants from Europe and as many as 120 domestic and field slaves, who were housed in a “logtown” just out of sight of the main house. Today, there’s a mere handful, including a re-created schoolhouse, a laundry and an outdoor kitchen in which interpreters sometimes cook over an open fire in a massive, walk-in fireplace.

The quartered one-acre garden and 12-foot-wide gravel paths (the same width as the home’s central passage) that visitors arriving by boat would have strolled on their way to the rear portico are long gone, but some of the boxwoods date to Mason’s time. They’re massive, with gnarly, twisted trunks.

Mason preferred the solitude of his plantation over the hustle and bustle of his public duties in Richmond and Williamsburg, and gladly retired there after the Philadelphia Convention. He died there at age 67 in 1792.  (He’s buried, along with his first wife, Ann, in the family burying ground beyond the school house.) The house would stay in the family until 1867, then have four more owners, the last of which would gift the property to the commonwealth  as a museum to be run by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. It was among the first U.S. properties to be named a national historic landmark (in 1960), a designation that stresses its importance not to just a local community or state but to the history of the entire nation.

Because Gunston Hall was located on the road from Richmond to Philadelphia, leaders traveling from one capital to the other sometimes stopped by. So when you walk on its original yellow pine floors, you’re walking in the footsteps of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe, along with more recent visitors Winston Churchill and Kate Hepburn.

It’s a heady feeling.


If you go

Getting there: Gunston Hall Plantation (10709 Gunston Road, Mason Neck, Va.) is 20 miles south of Washington, D.C., on the Potomac River. From Interstate 95 south, take exit 163 toward Lorton (VA-642). Turn left onto Lorton Road, then right onto Lorton Market Street, which becomes Gunston Cove Road after crossing Richmond Highway/Route 1. The Gunston Hall entrance is 3.5 miles on the left. From Pittsburgh, it’s about a 4½-hour drive, depending on traffic (which on the beltway in D.C., can be horrific).

Guided tours are offered daily on the half-hour between 9:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Entrance is $10/adults, $8/seniors and $5/children ages 6-18. If you don’t care so much about the house, a $5 grounds pass allows you to tour the outbuildings, visit George Mason’s burying ground, picnic, view the Potomac and hike the site’s trails. Free entrance for all active duty, National Guard and Reserve military personnel and their families from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Eat/drink: Guests can order a picnic lunch 24 hours in advance (48 hours on a Sunday) and have it delivered and waiting for them. Blu 1681 in nearby Woodbridge offers waterfront dining, and in the historic town of Occoquan you’ll find the Bottle Stop Wine Bar and charming Secret Garden Café. If you feel like splurging, or are hungry for the flavors of early America, the Mount Vernon Inn Restaurant is just a short 13 miles north on Route 1. For the budget-minded, there are many fast-food and casual chain restaurants in nearby Lorton, including IHOP and Glory Days Grill, a burger joint.

Lodging: There are any number of chain motels and hotels nearby in Fort Belvoir, Woodbridge, or Mount Vernon, Va., as well as in the D.C. metropolitan area.

More info: 1-703-550-9220 or


Chronic bowel disease doesn’t deter Pittsburgh runner

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield puts on a belt that keeps her stoma bag in place before going for a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

A love of running did not come naturally to Lauren Moran.

If anything, the Baldwin native considered moving her legs forward in anything faster than a slow crawl as punishment — and she was on both the soccer and track teams in high school.

“I hated to run,” says Ms. Moran, 34, of Bloomfield. “For me, it was always the worst part of sports.”

She held firm to that belief after graduating from Edinboro University with a communications degree in 2004, and her friends started signing up for weekend 5Ks. “I just never had an interest,” she says.

Even if she had, Ms. Moran’s body might have resisted. The summer after her freshman year in college, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a severe form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Ten years and three major surgeries later — the last of which left her with an ileostomy bag — Ms. Moran has turned her body’s betrayal into motivation. Looking to get healthy, she decided to train with a runner friend for the 2014 Great Race. Crossing the finish was such an emotional high that she ended up running a leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. She’ll be on a relay team again this year with family members May 1, helping to raise awareness of Crohn’s.

Her friend and mentor, Emily Winn, is running the full marathon to raise money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America in her honor.

“It’s come full circle,” says Ms. Moran, associate director of alumni relations at Duquesne University. “I’m in a whole new place because of running. My body can do different things.”

Learning to cope

There’s no one test that identifies Crohn’s disease with certainty; its symptoms “fit” a number of GI disorders, including celiac disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome.

While no one knows for sure what causes Crohn’s, heredity and a malfunctioning immune system are thought to play a role. Stress and diet can aggravate the symptoms, which include diarrhea, abdominal pain and fatigue.

It wasn’t until her weight plummeted 15 pounds that Ms. Moran’s mother insisted she see a doctor. A “million” tests later, she was finally diagnosed.

Named after the physician who first described the disease in 1932, Crohn’s can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract, That means its severity and symptoms can vary from patient to patient. A chronic disease, it can develop at any age for the estimated 700,000 Americans who have it, although it’s most common between the ages of 15 and 35.

Ms. Moran didn’t think her diagnosis was a big deal; this was the era before smart phones and computers, so information was hard to come by. “I couldn’t understand why my mom was so upset,” she recalls.

Doctors advised watching her diet to see what foods triggered symptoms and started her on medication. By the end of her junior year, she was getting Remicade infusions every six weeks, but she got worse instead of better. In 2006, while a grad student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, she had to have surgery to remove about 12 inches of her large intestine.

Recovery was tough but within a few weeks she was well enough to take a job in Florida. With maintenance drugs, she stayed healthy for the next few years. “I thought, ’This is great!’” she says.

Lauren Moran of Bloomfield goes for a run. In college, Ms. Moran was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

One step forward, two steps back 

Only it wasn’t. By 2013, the flare-ups were bad enough that simply willing herself to get through the day didn’t cut it. Realizing another surgery was likely, she decided to move back to Pittsburgh to be close to family. Three months after starting her new job at Duquesne University, she was in so much pain she couldn’t sit. Once again she went under the knife.

When she woke up from the 11-hour surgery, she had a colostomy. In addition to the physical recovery, Ms. Moran faced the emotional burden of dealing with a colostomy bag. It was a huge hit to her self esteem.

What if it leaked? Would she smell? How often would she have to empty it, and what if her stoma (the opening on her belly) made a funny noise? How would she wear a bathing suit? And what would it mean for dating?

“There’s so much stigma around it,” she says.

Yet Ms. Moran kept her concerns to herself. As Ms. Winn, 27, of Lawrenceville, notes, ”She’s not the type of person to complain.”

Which is how she came to start running six months after the surgery. Finally feeling good and able to eat different foods again, Ms. Moran realized it was time to get some exercise if she didn’t want to pack on the weight. Ms. Winn had just run the 2014 Pittsburgh Half Marathon and was bugging her to start running with her. With some trepidation, she agreed to train for the Great Race that fall.

Exercise might seem like a bad idea for someone with major stomach issues, but according to several studies, regular workouts can lead to less fatigue and alleviate some symptoms of IBD.

At first, she couldn’t even log a mile along the North Shore and would only run solo. “But Emily kept pushing me and after about a month, I was able to meet her in the Strip District for runs.”

She slowly improved, and that September, with a running belt keeping her stoma bag in place, she ran the Great Race 10K. Tears flowed when she crossed the finish.

“It was such an emotional year, and I never thought I could run,” she says. “It was a huge accomplishment.”

One more challenge

While a stoma is insensitive to pain, the race left her with some bad bruising around the colostomy site and a sore belly. Later that fall, doctors gave her devastating news. the rest of her colon would have to come out.

“I’d come so far that year, and felt healthy,” she recalls. ”I couldn’t believe I had to go through this again.”

In January 2015, surgeons converted her colostomy to an ileostomy, an operation in which doctors make an opening in the lowest part of the small intestine and bring it outside the body. They also removed her rectum.

Recovery was extremely hard, but what kept her going was wanting to run again. “Lauren is not the type to dwell on the bad stuff. She always wants to enjoy the moment,” says David Doyle, a friend since high school.

A month out, she could walk 10 steps. By March, she was jogging again, with a new goal: Running the last leg of the 2015 Pittsburgh Marathon relay. Not only did she finish, she gave it her all.

“It was awesome,” says Ms. Winn, who ran alongside her. ”I was exhausted but she was this little ball of energy.”

A stoma bag keeps Lauren Moran’s ileostomy in place during a run. Michael Henninger/Post-Gazette

Ms. Moran had so much fun that she decided to train for a sprint-distance triathlon at North Park three months later. She’ll run the marathon relay again this year and is also gearing up for her first Olympic-distance triathlon this summer.

Her body has been through so much, but it’s also proven to be resilient, Ms. Moran says. She has to be careful about hydration. But running has played an integral role in her recovery. She hopes by going public with her disease, she’ll create hope for others.

“Other college students will go through this,” she says. “I want them to know they can still lead a healthy life.”

She’s even come to appreciate her stoma.

“How can something that keeps me alive not be beautiful?” she asks.