She opened the back door and the view took my breath away.
I could have stayed there for hours, imagining what was beyond the lush vista ahead. He picked an incredible location. Others felt the same: “The house stands boldly on a hill spur, looking over broad acres of corn, rye, wheat, oats, and fertile meadow - a sight to see.”*
He certainly should’ve known about quality home locations. His grandfather was the owner of some the most prime real estate in Virginia: Gunston Hall, home of one of our Founding Fathers, George Mason. So, Thomas Francis Mason knew a thing or two about where he wanted to build his summer retreat, called Huntley. Considered an outstanding example of the Federal villa style of construction, historic Huntley is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Restoration and conservation
The Fairfax (Virginia) County Park Authority purchased the buildings on the Huntley grounds and the surrounding 2.75 acres in 1989. Restoration work that began in 2010 brought Huntley back to its external appearance in the early 19th century and made the interior suitable for exhibits, learning labs, and other cultural programming. The project also included restoring the remaining outbuildings - the ice house and the privy - to their early 19th century appearance.
The importance of Huntley’s restoration was not lost on the National Park Service (NPS). Huntley was awarded a $100,000 grant from NPS’s Save America's Treasures program, which was created to preserve significant historic properties and collections.
Passing through the house visitors can walk in Mason’s steps: with the exception of a few beams that have been replaced, the original floor remains. According to my tour guide, “When they did the renovation, every brick, every nail was cataloged and they dug down to the foot of the foundation and looked at everything.”
One of the most exciting results of the renovation was the beautiful, detailed work that was uncovered by conservators working on the fireplace. After removing 200 years of layers of paint, “we are reluctant to put paint back on it,” said my tour guide. Who can blame them, it looks remarkable!
Carrying on a legacy of public service
Thomas Mason (1785-1838) lived most of the year at his primary residence in what is now Old Town Alexandria (Virginia). He served as as a prominent lawyer, mayor, justice of the peace, president of the Middle Turnpike and Alexandria Canal companies, and the first judge of the District of Columbia’s criminal court.
A full-time overseer was responsible for managing the 624 acres of farmland that was once part of this estate, much of which is now a preserved parkland, Huntley Meadows Park.
Captivating view, always a fresh breeze
“One thing to remember while you’re up here (in the main house) is that while they had trees, they were nothing of this height (that we see today),” said my tour guide. “It was mostly farms out here so you have to imagine there aren’t any (tall) trees or roads, or any infrastructure and you could see all the way to the Potomac (River) Bay. So, there was always a very fresh breeze.”
During Mason’s time, when cities weren’t very clean, it was very common for people to get out to the country for the health benefits that came with taking in fresh air. There were three epidemics during Mason’s time in Old Town Alexandria.
The war came to its door
“One account during that time (the Civil War) is from a man sitting out here and he can hear the First Battle of Manassas,” said my guide. “So, there were no trees, no buildings to absorb that, and you think of that constant pounding for hours and hours, 30 miles from here. Sobering, certainly.”
Closer to home, during the winter of 1861, troops from the 3rd Michigan Infantry camped at Huntley.
After the war, the property was sold to Albert W. Harrison and Nathan W. Pierson, who were farmers from New Jersey. In 1871, they divided the property. Harrison kept the portion containing Huntley, which remained in his family's hands until 1946.
Constant vigilance for heritage protection
Friends of Historic Huntley (FOHH) is a non-profit citizen group committed to working with the Fairfax County Park Authority to ensure the preservation, restoration and appropriate use of Historic Huntley and to enhance the public’s knowledge of the site and the broader historic development of the neighborhood.
FOHH continues to monitor ongoing land use planning for potential impacts to historic Huntley’s viewshed. Most recently, FOHH, Friends of Huntley Meadows Park, and Fairfax County worked together to protect Historic Huntley’s viewshed from a proposed plan by Dominion Virginia Power. As a result, Dominion will modify its power rebuild project along the southern boundary of Huntley Meadows Park.
- The grounds: The grounds at Huntley are free and open to the public daily from March to November from dawn to dusk.
- Huntley tours: Huntley is open for tours from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays from the end of April to October. For details, see the Huntley Meadows Park site: fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/huntley, call the park at (703) 768-2525, or find Friends of Historic Huntley on Facebook.
*1875 Syracuse Journal report of a visitor to Huntley.