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.
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.
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.
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.
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 gunstonhall.org