Gunston Hall Exterior

Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall is the stately Georgian home of Virginia lawmaker George Mason in Fairfax County on the Potomac River. Mason inherited the land on which Gunston Hall is located from his father in 1735; construction on the house began in 1754. Completed in 1759, Gunston Hall was one of the finest homes in colonial America. While the house's exterior is typical of most Chesapeake plantation homes, the elegant interior reflects the full range of English rococo style, showing French, neoclassical, and chinoiserie influences, and stood out at a time when the prevailing building style was most often described as "neat and plain." The house's innovative architectural flourishes and intricate woodwork can be attributed to its English architect, William Buckland, and master carver, William Bernard Sears. Mason farmed part of the Gunston Hall grounds, growing tobacco and wheat, among other crops, and raising livestock. A slave community called Log Town stood at some distance from the house. Today, Gunston Hall is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. MORE...

 

Construction

George Mason inherited the land on which Gunston Hall is located after his father, a successful Chesapeake Bay planter, drowned crossing the Potomac in 1735. Mason's Virginia estate comprised about 5,000 acres on a stubby peninsula that jutted into the river. Called at one time Dogue's Neck, after a local Indian tribe, it later became known as Mason's Neck. Eight miles south of George Washington's Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall was four miles west of the King's Highway, in the eighteenth century a major north-south thoroughfare. Mason's son John Mason years later recalled Continental army officers and other "travelers of distinction" availing themselves of his father's hospitality.

Mason married Ann Eilbeck of Maryland in 1750; the couple would have nine children who survived to adulthood. To accommodate his growing family, Mason began construction of Gunston Hall in 1754. He surveyed the land himself and selected a site about 300 yards southwest of New Town, an earlier Mason family residence. The name "Gunston Hall" apparently originated with the country seat of a maternal ancestor, Gerard Fowke of Staffordshire, England, and was borrowed by a later Gerard Fowke for his Charles County, Maryland, plantation. One of the region's first brick homes, Mason's Gunston Hall was built of Flemish bond bricks with sandstone cornerstones from the nearby Aquia Creek quarry. The house had two chimneys at each end, and ten dormer windows in the front and rear provided light to the second floor. A porch on the landward side combined Doric Greek and Italian Palladian designs. On the opposite side of the house an even more ornate porch faced a large formal garden and, beyond it, the Potomac River.

House Interior

The shell of Gunston Hall was probably complete by the time Mason's brother Thomson Mason, apparently acting at Mason's request, hired the English craftsman William Buckland to assume the "entire Direction of the Carpenter's and Joiner's work of a large house," as Mason later wrote. Thomson Mason was in London at the time studying law at the Inns of Court; Buckland signed an indenture agreement with him on August 4, 1755. Buckland was promised transportation to America, provisions, lodging, and a yearly salary of twenty pounds sterling. In Virginia, Buckland drew on the full range of the English rococo style and reinterpreted common architectural motifs to design the intricate carvings for which Gunston Hall became famous. Another indentured English artisan, William Bernard Sears, did most of the actual woodwork. Buckland left Gunston Hall in November 1759, and went on to become one of the best-known architects in colonial America, designing notable public buildings and private homes in Virginia and Maryland before his death in 1774 at age forty.

Visitors arriving from the King's Highway approached Gunston Hall down a carriage path bordered on each side by a row of cherry trees. Mason had arranged the trees so that, from the middle of his doorway, a guest saw only the first tree in each row. A large central hallway, showing French and neoclassical influences, ran the length of the first floor, and a dramatic pineapple pendant hung above the stairway. To the right was a formal dining room painted a bright yellow ochre with chinoiserie details. Chinoiserie, a Chinese style popular in Great Britain in the 1700s, was virtually unknown in America. Pilasters with intricate entablatures encased windows, doors, and recessed cabinets on either side of a fireplace. The mantel was made of imported marble. The woodworking included pagoda-like moldings and canopies where Chinese vases or figurines could have been displayed.

The main hallway and all the downstairs rooms had pocket shutters. The dining room opened onto a strikingly formal and elegant Palladian-style room. Broken pediments topped the fireplace and two built-in cabinets, or beaufats, flanked the fireplace. The Palladian room's many expensive features included rococo woodwork, matched blind-doweled floor planks, a carved egg-and-dart pattern around the panels of the room's black walnut doors, and furniture that Buckland and Sears had made especially for the Masons' use.

Across the hall was a more private space Mason called "the Little Parlor." A simply furnished room painted a neutral gray, it served as an informal family dining room and as Mason's office. As was then common, the master bedroom, or chamber, was also on the first floor. John Mason remembered the room for a tall chest of drawers where his mother, Ann Mason, kept the children's clothes and for two closets on either side of the fireplace. She used one closet as a pantry where she stored valuables and delicacies. She also kept in the bedroom a green leather riding crop she used to discipline the children; they called it "the green doctor." As an adult, John Mason reminisced that "the household establishment at Gunston Hall was conducted with great regularity & system" when his mother was alive. Several years after Ann Mason's death, George Mason painted the room a then-stylish deep green.

Gunston Hall's second floor did not duplicate the floor plan of the first floor, which is somewhat unusual among large houses of the time. A hallway running the width of the house split the upstairs. Other than three arches at the top of the stairs, the second floor lacked any architectural flourishes. There were seven bedrooms, a separate staircase for slaves and servants, and a storage room, or "lumber room" in the language of the period. It was illuminated by an interior "robber" window that drew sunlight from an exterior light above the stairwell.

Gunston Hall's exquisite architecture, especially the interiors of its public spaces, stood out at a time when the prevailing building style was most often described as "neat and plain," and few individual landholdings were as large as Mason's. About two-thirds of the estate remained wooded in Mason's lifetime. The rest was farmed in four separate parcels of 400 to 500 acres, each with its own overseer and slaves. Mason grew tobacco, and in the 1770s he began raising wheat for sale. He grew large quantities of corn to feed his slaves, raised his own vegetables, and kept an orchard. Mason also raised livestock, including a prized stallion named Vulcan, who had his own pasture. Although Mason bought luxury goods, household items, and furniture from England, he tried to make Gunston Hall fairly self-sufficient, in part because eighteenth-century Americans saw personal independence as a mark of virtue and as an attribute of leadership.

Gunston Hall Plantation and Legacy

The Gunston Hall plantation was essentially a small village in which more than a hundred people lived. A 1782 census listed thirty major outbuildings, including a kitchen, a smokehouse, and a schoolhouse. An enclosed area on the east side of the main house included a kitchen, a well, and other domestic facilities. The plantation's blacksmith and its other skilled artisans may have worked in individual sheds. Mason shipped tobacco to Europe from his own dock along the Potomac. He employed paid laborers, indentured servants, and dozens of slaves. Mason's will mentioned forty-five enslaved workers by name. A slave community, called Log Town, stood at some distance from the plantation house.

Mason died quietly at Gunston Hall on October 7, 1792. The house stayed in the Mason family until 1867, when William Merrill and William Dawson purchased it from the widow of one of George Mason's grandsons. In 1949, after passing through a series of private owners, Gunston Hall was acquired by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a gift from the Louis Hertle family. The house was opened to the public and is operated as a historic site by regents from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America. Most of Gunston Hall's eighteenth-century furnishings have disappeared over the years, but time has not erased Gunston Hall's most distinctive features, and impressive efforts have been made to restore the building and grounds. Today, its magnificent woodwork remains intact, along with about 550 acres of the original estate. George Mason's home continues to serves as a monument to a sometimes forgotten founder and as an impressive example of colonial architecture and interior design.

Time Line

  • March 1735 - George Mason's father, a successful Chesapeake Bay planter, drowns crossing the Potomac River. As the eldest son, ten-year-old George inherits 5,000 acres on a peninsula called Dogue's Neck.
  • April 4, 1750 - George Mason marries Ann Eilbeck, the daughter of William Eilbeck and Sarah Edgar Eilbeck. William Eilbeck is a wealthy planter and merchant in Charles County, Maryland.
  • 1754 - George Mason begins the construction of Gunston Hall on a site about 300 yards southwest of New Town, an earlier Mason family residence. Mason is motivated by his growing family to build the house.
  • August 4, 1755 - English craftsman William Buckland signs an indenture agreement with Thomson Mason, brother of George Mason, to oversee ongoing work at Gunston Hall.
  • 1759 - George Mason completes an elegant mansion, Gunston Hall, on Dogue's Neck, Virginia. Noted architect William Buckland has designed the interior, and Gunston Hall will remain Mason's home for the rest of his life.
  • October 7, 1792 - George Mason dies at Gunston Hall, his Fairfax County home.
  • 1867 - Ownership of Gunston Hall passes out of the Mason family when the widow of George Mason VI sells the house to William Merrill and William Dawson. Between 1867 and 1949, the house passes through a series of private owners.
  • 1949 - The Louis Hertle family donates Gunston Hall to the Commonwealth of Virginia. The house is to be opened to the public and administered by regents from the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
  • Fall 1990 - The Gunston Hall Plantation staff begins a room use study in an effort to make the house a better reflection of the Gunston Hall of George Mason's day.
Further Reading
Beckerdite, Luke, "William Buckland and William Bernard Sears." Journal of Early Southern Decorative Arts 8 (November 1982): 7–40.
Bisbee, Lauren. Of Land & Labor: Gunston Hall Plantation Life in the 18th Century. Lorton, Virginia: Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 1994.
Broadwater, Jeff. George Mason, Forgotten Founder. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.
Copeland, Pamela C. and Richard K. MacMaster. The Five George Masons: Patriots and Planters of Virginia and Maryland. Lorton, Virginia: Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, 1975.
Dunn, Terry K., ed. The Recollections of John Mason: George Mason's Son Remembers His Father and Life at Gunston Hall. Marshall, Virginia: EPM Publications, Inc., 2004.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Broadwater, J. Gunston Hall. (2013, January 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gunston_Hall.

  • MLA Citation:

    Broadwater, Jeff. "Gunston Hall." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 30 Jan. 2013. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 15, 2011 | Last modified: January 30, 2013


Contributed by Jeff Broadwater, a professor of history at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. He is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006).