Gunston Hall, eighteenth century home of patriot George Mason, sits on a bluff commanding a spectacular view of the Potomac River – not far downriver from George Washington’s Mount Vernon and just over 12 miles by road. As close neighbors and Virginia politicians, Mason and Washington were friends for decades, members of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. Then George Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 and refused to sign the Constitution due to it’s lack of a statement guaranteeing rights. Ultimately this was added as the Bill of Rights, but many perceived his refusal as jeopordizing the entire effort. This cost him his friendship with Washington.
In 1755 at age thirty George Mason began construction of his home, Gunston Hall, named for an ancestral home in Staffordshire, England. The vast plantation grew tobacco and wheat for cash. As part of the wealthy planter class, Mason wanted to display his status through a stylish home, one that displayed the symmetry and balance of the popular Georgian style. His brother Thompson was studying law in London and Mason contacted him to locate a carpenter-joiner who could create a stylish , English interior for his new home. Thompson found a twenty-one year old named William Buckland who brought high-style London to the Virginia countryside. Eager to prove his skills, this indentured worker designed and executed Gunston’s formal spaces along with enslaved workers and gifted woodcarver William Bernard Sears.
I traveled to Gunston to give a talk about a new book, and seized an opportunity to tour the house with the property’s director. Under renovation at the time, the house was empty of furniture, not the usual appearance. Without the visual clutter of decorative arts, the rich ornamentation of its intricate carving stood out. Here’s a quick look.
The Chinese room, colonial America’s first known example of the Chinese style, served as the dining room. The chinoiserie or Chinese style was the rage in London. Five pagoda-like hoods grace the upper walls. The stylistic elements are identical to those found in plates in Thomas Chippendale’s publications. It hosted such illustrious guests as James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The Palladian Room is the most spectacular room in the house from an architectural perspective. The intricately detailed carving on the fireplace wall is impressive. The black walnut doors surrounded by an “egg and dart” pattern add to the richness, as does the red silk/wool damask wall coverings. The Italian influence of Palladio shines through.
Bright green paint highlights the Masons’ master bedroom, also on the first floor. In many ways the room was the center of operations for the domestic management of the plantation.
The riverfront entrance served most visitors in the eighteenth century. They entered the house through a Boxwood Allee and a Gothic-style garden porch.
On the outside, Gunston Hall looks small and lacks a distinctive facade that many colonial American plantation homes have. Its interior is what sparkles to impress. Any visitor to Gunston in the 18th century would have been impressed, and that was the point.
While less well-known and visited than neighboring Mount Vernon, Gunston Hall is well worth the visit at any time of year.