Friday, June 6, 2014

Visiting Gunston Hall: Founding Father George Mason's home

One of my favorite things to do is visit the grand homes located throughout the area and I found one of the more interesting tours to be Gunston Hall. If you're not familiar with it, it's the home of George Mason, one of America's perhaps lesser-known Founding Fathers. 

A fourth generation Virginian, Mason was a pivotal figure in Colonial America, and he was instrumental in helping nurture the seeds of early American government. As you view the house, visitor's center and property, you'll learn about Mason's influences and more.

There is plenty to see and do during your visit. You can tour the mansion, the grounds, and the external buildings. There is also a visitor's center to explore and learn the fascinating history to be found at this property.

Visitor's center

Gunston Hall's property contains a wonderful visitors' center and a small gift shop. When you enter the building you come to the information desk where you can purchase your ticket and get a map of the property. At this time you'll be offered an invitation to watch a short film (about 10 minutes) which shares the background of Mason and his place in early American history. The film also touches on his family life, along with the contributions and influences he had with his writing of The Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Once the video is over you are welcomed to walk through the visitor's center and view additional documentation, artifacts, personal effects, artwork and other items displayed related to Mason and early American history. As you exit the visitor's center, you can walk down to the main house.


Gunston Hall's construction began in 1755 and was completed in 1759. The exterior of the home is Georgian style and its interior design reflects the styles of the mid to late 1700s. What is amazing about Gunston Hall is that much of the original walls and flooring are still in excellent condition. Photos are not allowed to be taken inside of the main house but there are 4 rooms: a master bedroom, parlor, formal dining room ("Palladian Room"), and a smaller informal parlor which is more aligned to what would be a "family room" in modern times. 

This room is reportedly the only surviving room to have a chinoiserie woodwork scheme from colonial British America

[ Update: For a time in 2014, visitors were allowed to take photos inside during renovations - to see more, please see my related post for these photos: An up-close view of the interior of George Mason's Gunston Hall ]

Gunston Hall's Palladian Room deserves a special mention because of the intricate carvings along the molding and doorways. It is very fancy looking. The beauty of the craftsmanship, which is carved to perfection, oozes through in the final product.

Upper corner in the Palladian Room

What is unique about this house is there is a hallway with an entrance at the side of the house that leads to the outdoor facilities, such as the kitchen. Many first floor plans for Georgian homes don't have a side door. There is a small and narrow winding staircase leading from this hallway to the upstairs rooms. 

Climbing the stairs you find a wide hallway with several doorways adorning the hallways. This central corridor is the gateway to the other bedrooms. The layout upstairs is quite different than the lower level. The second floor contains 7 rooms and a smaller room which is believed to have been used for storage. What's distinctive is this small room contains a small window not attached to the exterior of the building. This illustrates the innovation used to capture more sunlight into the home during daylight hours. Finally, in the center of the hallway sits a large ornate arch and main stairway leading downstairs.

The main house is impressive because its architecture is symmetrical. The detail and care that went into building this home I found to be simply astonishing. While the entire property is beautiful, it is the main house that really shines as a central attraction.

Side view of Gunston Hall and rear property
Side view of Gunston Hall and rear property overlooking the Potomac River


Property and surrounding buildings

The main house is surrounded by a few other buildings and the grounds. In front of the home, a set of large beautiful old trees still stand at each end of the drive inviting the visitor to the home. They are quite large and, to the visitor, it's easily believable these trees have been there for centuries.
 The well at Gunston. The foundation was said to be original. In the background, you can see the main house's side entrance.
Off the side of the main house is an area that is reminiscent of a courtyard of sorts. This area is fenced in and contains reconstructed buildings to show how the kitchen, well, dairy, and smokehouse would have stood during the 18th century.

Kitchen at Gunston Hall
Kitchen at Gunston Hall
To the other side of the house lies a schoolhouse. This is where the Mason children were schooled by their live-in schoolmaster who lived above the classroom. This building is open for touring and you can see the inside of the classroom and also take a peek at the schoolmaster's room upstairs.

Like most plantations of this time, the grounds contained gardens and a family cemetery. The garden area is laid out behind the main home; it faces the Potomac River. At the time it is mostly boxwoods, however, during a November 2017 tour I was told there is a big project in the works to revive the gardens to their former beauty.

If you want to get a closer view of the river, you can hike down to the river banks. To the right of the house, you travel a short distance and come to a corridor of two rows trees enclosing a path. When you turn left to this path it brings you to the family burial grounds which is privately sheltered by a beautiful wooded area and magnificent rows of trees.

Cemetery at Gunston Hall
Cemetery at Gunston Hall

Visiting Gunston Hall 

Bust of George MasonThe property is open year round with the exception of New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. See the website for current prices and hours.

I've toured this property several times and have found the tour guides to be very knowledgeable and helpful in sharing their vast knowledge about George Mason the man and the history of the home.  

If you are visiting Washington D.C., Gunston Hall is located in Mason Neck, Va., about 20 miles south of the District and conveniently located off Route 1 near I-95, just beyond other remarkable landmarks such as Mount Vernon, Fort Belvoir, Pope-Leighey Home and Woodlawn Plantation. 

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