Great Estates: Gunston Hall in Mason Neck, Virginia
Down a paved road lined with double rows of Black Heart cherry trees stands Gunston Hall, the elegant yet practical residence built by the celebrated statesman and fourth-generation Virginian George Mason (1725-1792).
Completed in 1759 after four years of construction, the estate’s Georgian façade and animated interiors were designed and executed by two highly skilled English indentured servants, architect William Buckland (1734-1774) and carver and designer William Bernard Sears (d. 1818). The design was conceived as a two-story structure with north and south porches and formal and vegetable gardens on what was once 5,500 acres of tobacco and corn fields. Buckland had been trained in the architectural style of Palladio, which is clearly evident at Gunston Hall. Yet the novice architect, who had just completed his apprenticeship prior to working for Mason, took his training to a new level by merging the established neoclassical style with rococo, Gothic, and chinoiserie elements, thus creating a decorative scheme unprecedented in Virginia at the time. This is seen in the layout of the first floor, which includes the lively and highly ornamental “Palladian” room; the “Chinese” room with its yellow walls and Asian-influenced aesthetic; the subdued and decidedly colonial little parlor; and the more private primary chamber with its then-fashionable emerald green walls and woodwork.
The unusually large second floor consisted of seven bedrooms for Mason’s nine children by his first wife Ann Eilbeck (1757-1773) and a “lumber room,” or storage area. This arrangement stood in stark contrast to most mid-eighteenth-century houses where the first floor mirrored the second. The mix of eclectic interiors and unusual floor plans at Gunston Hall attests to the Mason family’s varying needs, ranging from appropriate spaces for political meetings to refined quarters for social events and entertaining.
The objects that fill the house are also vivid testaments to the manner in which Mason and his family lived and interacted. More than fifty objects original to Gunston Hall form part of the permanent collection. While some of the furniture was bespoke (like the pieces Buckland and Sears created for the “Chinese” room), Mason supplemented the interiors with furnishings and other objects from England and the Chesapeake area. This mix of local and foreign was strikingly evident in the ritual of dining, where silver beakers produced by Virginia silversmith Charles Burnett (active 1785-1849) were used in tandem with silver flatware likely by London silversmith John Horsley (active 1760s) and a c. 1787/1788 salt cellar crafted by English silversmith Henry Vincent.
Like other Virginia houses of the era, Gunston Hall long remained in the family until it was sold in 1867 to William Merrill and William Dawson. It subsequently passed through several hands until it was purchased by Louis Hertle in 1912. He deeded the house and 550 acres to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1932 and stipulated that it be administered by a Board of Regents appointed from the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America. After Hertle’s death in 1949, an expansive restoration process began to bring Gunston Hall back to its former glory. In 1960 the estate was designated a National Historic Landmark, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
More than sixty years of renovations and excavations, coupled with extensive inventory and primary document research, have brought Gunston Hall into the twenty-first century as a superb example of the changing style of colonial Virginia domestic architecture, while also giving this once illustrious estate a renewed ability to share its exciting history.
Gunston Hall is located at 10709 Gunston Road, in Mason Neck, Virginia. The house museum is open year round (except Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day) from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and the grounds and hiking trails are open until 6:00 p.m. Tours are available every half hour until 4:30 p.m. Admission is $9; discounts are available for seniors and children. For more information please call 703-550-9220, or visit http://www.gunstonhall.org/.