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Review: Gunston Hall - A tour of the home and life of George Mason Special

The view approaching Gunston Hall. Once you enter  you can see how large and ornate this home s inte...
George Mason was born a fourth generation Virginian in Colonial America. A man who was very influential in his time, but over the years had became less known in history. A tour of his home, Gunston Hall, tells his piece of Early American history.
Gunston Hall is located in Mason Neck, Va. and was home to George Mason and his family. Located south of Mount Vernon, the majestic home of George Washington, this structure serves as both a lesson and reminder of Mason's contribution to creating a new nation.
Mason's primary home on the 5,500-acre property was constructed during the time frame of 1755-1760, and serves as an excellent example of classic Georgian architecture.
The tour begins off with an approximate 10-minute film that provides the background of who George Mason was. Born in Virginia in 1725, Mason inherited the land on which Gunston Hall is located on in 1735 after the sudden death of his father from a drowning accident. Being only 10 years old at the time, construction on the grand home did not begin until many years later.
Mason married Ann Eilbeck in 1750, and the marriage lasted 23 years, until Ann died. Nine of their 12 children survived to adulthood. He remained a widower for seven years and eventually married a second time to Sarah Brent.
After the film, visitors can peruse the small museum that is a part of the visitor's center, explore the property, or go straight to the Gunston Hall tour; tours are held every half-hour.
A portrait of Ann Mason hangs in the museum  located in the Visitor s Center on Gunston Hall s prope...
A portrait of Ann Mason hangs in the museum, located in the Visitor's Center on Gunston Hall's property
We had just missed a tour, so we had a good 30 minutes to wander the grounds. Most of the structures on the property are not originals, but reconstructed based on historical accounts. The two original structures on the property are the main house and the well.
Visitors explore the outer buildings at Gunston Hall. Most of these structures are replicates.
Visitors explore the outer buildings at Gunston Hall. Most of these structures are replicates.
This well s foundation is one of the original structures at Gunston Hall
This well's foundation is one of the original structures at Gunston Hall
Interior of what the schoolhouse would have looked like in the 18th century. The schoolmaster slept ...
Interior of what the schoolhouse would have looked like in the 18th century. The schoolmaster slept in a loft upstairs
The view from the property is quite nice, and must have been spectacular in its time. The home is set back, high on a hill about a half-mile from the Potomac River, you can see the river in the distance standing in Gunston Hall's rear yard, which is large. (The weather was too warm to take a walk down to the riverfront, and we didn't want to miss the next house tour, but the trail looks to be worth exploring upon a future return visit).
View of the Potomac River. Image taken from the upper floor of the schoolhouse. You can see a side-v...
View of the Potomac River. Image taken from the upper floor of the schoolhouse. You can see a side-view of the main house.
The interior of the house is in excellent condition and has been restored beautifully. In Gunston Hall, not unlike many other historic properties in the region, photography is not allowed in the interior of the home.
What is most remarkable is perhaps the moulding and design of the 'grand' rooms in the house. The work was designed by indentured servant William Buckland and master carver William Bernard Sears. The detail in Buckland's and Sears' handicraft is exquisite, and the work done in the primary dining room is unlike any I'd seen before. The style of this room, Chinoiserie, was not a common one used in America. All of the pieces currently in the home are 18th century pieces, and several actually belonged to the Mason family.
On the house tour we learned the name "Gunston Hall" was named after an ancestral home located in Staffordshire, England; that home had been built in either the 15th or 16th century. Very interesting information we learned during this 30-minute tour with a very informative and friendly guide. Another historical bit of information learned was that after Mason refused to sign the U.S. Constitution, because he felt it too "strong" of a national government, this led to the permanent severance of his friendship with George Washington.
The first floor of the home is a guided tour and after this portion, visitors can go upstairs and self-tour the bedrooms, which are also uniquely designed, described as "dormitory", when walking through the hallway, the word "hospital" also came to mind when examining the layout.
After touring the house, next was taking a walk up a tree-lined path (off to the side of the house) which led to the family cemetery. This is where Mason, his first wife and several generations of family members are buried. The list of those interred at this location did not include his second wife, Sarah.
Tree-lined entrance to the Mason family cemetery
Tree-lined entrance to the Mason family cemetery
George and Ann Mason s final resting place
George and Ann Mason's final resting place
Over the course of his life, many people lived on the plantation; Mason employed paid laborers, indentured servants, and slaves. A once flourishing plantation, which yielded profitable tobacco and wheat crops, Gunston Hall's owner preferred not to leave the property, but eventually would be pulled away in the 1770s to play a role in the political affairs unfolding at this time. His family kept the property for a few generations, but it was eventually sold and later donated.
A fourth generation Virginian, Mason was a pivotal figure in Colonial America, having written the Virginia Declaration of Rights. His writings and ideas were integrated not only in the Declaration of Independence, but also served as a model for the U.S. Bill of Rights, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
George Mason IV died at his home, aged 67, in 1792. On the tour, it was mentioned that over time Mason's role in history had become less known, and much of his life is a mystery, as he'd eased out of the political circles.
A look at Gunston Hall from the rear angle. This home is in remarkable condition and a well-preserve...
A look at Gunston Hall from the rear angle. This home is in remarkable condition and a well-preserved piece of American history
Considering its age, Gunston Hall is in remarkable condition and is truly one of the historic grand homes located in Northern Virginia. Today, the property is now owned by The Commonwealth of Virginia and administered by a Board of Regents appointed from The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America.
Tours are open to the public daily, for a fee, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the grounds are open to visitors until 6 p.m.

7 comments

#1May 29, 2012 Igor I. Solar
Your very informative article on Gunston Hall and the life of George Mason motivated me to read more about this important man in American history. He certainly was a remarkable patriot and his role in the development of the "Bill of Rights" is undeniable. However, I found a bit troubling his rather ambiguous and contradictory position about slavery. I learned that although he was definitively against slavery and was considered an abolitionist, he owned many slaves who laboured in his Virginia plantation. At the time of his death, he did not grant freedom to his slaves in his will. How could a person that called slavery "a slow poison, which is daily contaminating the minds & morals of our people" and "a trade diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind" keep slaves working in his plantation and refuse to manumit them even after his death?
Were these the views of an 18th Century man in a society where holding slaves was a way of life, or were they the clever posture of a politician who said something but did different?
#2May 29, 2012 Leigh Goessl
@Igor I. Solar
Your very informative article on Gunston Hall and the life of George Mason motivated me to read more about this important man in American history. He certainly was a remarkable patriot and his role in the development of the "Bill of Rights" is undeniable. However, I found a bit troubling his rather ambiguous and contradictory position about slavery. I learned that although he was definitively against slavery and was considered an abolitionist, he owned many slaves who laboured in his Virginia plantation. At the time of his death, he did not grant freedom to his slaves in his will. How could a person that called slavery "a slow poison, which is daily contaminating the minds & morals of our people" and "a trade diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind" keep slaves working in his plantation and refuse to manumit them even after his death?
Were these the views of an 18th Century man in a society where holding slaves was a way of life, or were they the clever posture of a politician who said something but did different?
Excellent question Igor, thanks. And I'm not sure of the full answer to be honest (This is a man I'm pretty sure was not even covered in my history courses as a youngster - if he was, it was a gloss over). I do think your comment on "way of life" is definitely a factor. This was briefly brought up during the tour. My impression was perhaps he was hoping the issue would 'resolve' itself and maybe he left it for others to "figure out" (as one thing was emphasized, he didn't want to be involved in politics as it took him away from home). Although, the fact he did not free his slaves upon his death seems contradictory to his words. The tour guide had implied there was fear of an uneducated freed slave population and this played a role into Mason's decision making.
#3May 29, 2012 Leigh Goessl
I did some more looking on this, and this article on the George Mason University website offers some theories. One is the education issue. Here is one of the other paragraphs - "Why Mason did not do this [free his slaves upon his death] we will never know, but if he remained true to his convictions, and it is hard to imagine Mason doing anything else, perhaps he did not free them because he could not see how a single planter acting alone could effect a solution in a matter the nation as a whole should address. In the end, it may have been as simple as this: Family was more important even than principle. Mason was unwilling to bankrupt his children. It cannot have been an easy decision. Washington, who had no children, did not have to face that choice."
#4May 29, 2012 Igor I. Solar
Family was more important even than principle.
Thanks Leigh. I appreciate you taking the time to look further into the subject of G. Mason's conflicts and contradictions on slavery. Probably the "family over principle" concept may have been the most important to him.
I liked the pictures and I value having acquired some additional knowledge as a result of reading your article.
#5May 29, 2012 Debra Myers
Wonderful information, Leigh and the photos are great!
I knew little about the man as well...if we learned about him I may have missed that day in school! LOL
#6May 30, 2012 Leigh Goessl
@Igor I. Solar
Thanks Leigh. I appreciate you taking the time to look further into the subject of G. Mason's conflicts and contradictions on slavery. Probably the "family over principle" concept may have been the most important to him.
I liked the pictures and I value having acquired some additional knowledge as a result of reading your article.
Thanks Igor. I had thought about this some more after I posted, and I agree with you the "family over principle" was likely the reason.
As an additional thought, during my visit last weekend, it was emphasized Mason was a family man, hated the times he had to travel away, and his (first) marriage was rooted in love, not the financial/status arrangements commonly heard of during that time. With that in mind, it seems probable he would be keeping the financial effect on his family foremost in mind.
#7May 30, 2012 Leigh Goessl
@Debra Myers
Wonderful information, Leigh and the photos are great!
I knew little about the man as well...if we learned about him I may have missed that day in school! LOL
Thanks Debra! Seems many schools omitted him out of history. Interesting. I'm guessing its because he faded out after refusing to sign? Not everyone shunned him though, Jefferson visited Mason shortly before his death, I think it was a week. Washington never spoke to him again though, even referred to him as "former friend." (As an aside, Washington and Mason were neighbors)

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