A radical idea that changed the nation

by E Bellizzi November. 14, 2017 580 views
Beautiful any time of year, but fall does put on a colorful show at the home of George Mason in Mason Neck, Virginia.

Beautiful any time of year, but fall does put on a colorful show at the home of George Mason in Mason Neck, Virginia.

He was getting tired of it. The meddling, the sense that Americans were being treated like unruly schoolboys. Yet, make no mistake he was not a hot-headed radical.

He was a semi-retired farmer who rarely left Virginia and in his words, “has seldom meddled in public affairs...” But George Mason had enough and drew a line in the sand that he simply could not cross. Thanks to his stubbornness, for over 200 years the individual rights guaranteed to Americans have become a model for democracies around the world.

His home, known as Gunston Hall, which is a National Historic Landmark, is about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C.

The view from the second floor staircase looking down into the home's entrance.  The carved walnut and pine wood is from the Gunston Hall plantation.

The view from the second floor staircase looking down into the home's entrance. The carved walnut and pine wood is from the Gunston Hall plantation.

A place of contrasting details

Mason blazed his own trail in the formation of our government when he refused to sign the Constitution as it lacked assurances of individual freedom. The document he created for his home state, the Virginia Declaration of Rules, became the framework for our Bill of Rights.

Like his journey from English gentleman to American patriot, Mason’s home, too, is an edifice that cannot be easily labeled. A four-year construction effort, the modest Georgian-style facade gives no hint to the exquisite craftsmanship inside.

“It’s pretty astounding once you come in here,” my tour guide, Jackie, told me. “It looks like a small home as you approach it, then you come inside and go, ‘Holy cow! Where did these 12-feet-8-inch” ceilings come from? Where did this carving, this luxurious room?’ I think the contrast really impresses and surprises people.”

Impressive indeed. Lost for a moment in the grand interior, I expected to see Mason turn the corner and greet me in the vast Central Passageway. Dinner for two, Mr. Mason? Oh, not with you dressed in pants, my dear lady!

Corner of Gunston Hall with view of front porch. The porch was not here during Mason's time, but was added 25 years later by another owner.

Corner of Gunston Hall with view of front porch. The porch was not here during Mason's time, but was added 25 years later by another owner.

View from the front door looking up at the arch.

View from the front door looking up at the arch.

The afternoon sun rests upon the back porch at Gunston Hall.  This porch is original to the home when Mason resided here.

The afternoon sun rests upon the back porch at Gunston Hall. This porch is original to the home when Mason resided here.

Built to last

Robert A. Rutland, author of George Mason: Reluctant Statesman, wrote that “like most of the things George Mason constructed, Gunston Hall was built to last.” In his political life, Mason was known for an uncanny ability to master details. That skill flowed seamlessly from professional dealings to construction dwelling. For example, Mason had strict guidelines about the sand used to make the mortar. He checked the seasoning of the timbers and the cut of the mason stones used for corners of the building. Visitors may not notice all of these details. Yet, the fact that they can step inside Mason’s original home 258 years after it was completed highlights his dedication to long-term endeavors that mattered to him.

A bedroom on the second floor of Gunston Hall.

A bedroom on the second floor of Gunston Hall.

Two sides to the man and house

As there were two sides to Mason, the statesman and the private farmer, Gunston Hall reflects his dual roles. Visitors see his formal Palladian Room, where he entertained guests and showed off his status with an elegantly carved doorway that calls attention to the fanciest room in the house. The Chinese Room was equally impressive to Mason guests. It was the site of meals that began at 2 p.m. and included three significant courses while the afternoon sun drenched the canary-colored walls.

“It is typical of George Mason to along with the way things are supposed to be, but when he comes up against something that doesn’t work for him he’s willing to go his own way,” said Jackie.

Jackie continued, “And I think it’s typical of his personality, his political life, and the way he designed this house. He designed it traditionally until he needed something different and then he was willing to go against convention.”

Making the climb through the narrow servant’s staircase to the second floor, Mason’s break with the norm is evident. The seven bedrooms upstairs could be described as simple, yet functional. They are worth seeing given their impressive vantage point high above the grounds.

Despite making 136 speeches at the 1787 Constitutional Convention about omissions to the Constitution he felt were essential, he was condemned by Constitutional supporters as a bitter old man. Rebuffed and angry he found refuge at Gunston Hall among his family. He may have spent time contemplating in his unadorned home office gazing at his English boxwood shrubs, which are still thriving.

The original English boxwood shrubs planted when Mason resided at Gunston Hall.

The original English boxwood shrubs planted when Mason resided at Gunston Hall.

A simple, but functional bedroom on the second floor of Gunston Hall.

A simple, but functional bedroom on the second floor of Gunston Hall.

The natural beauty of Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall’s impressive qualities are not confined to the house. Its 550-acres of overall stillness, broken only by the delicate sound of birds, and ample walking paths add to its appeal. Sitting behind the house on a high back bench overlooking the Potomac River, visitors can reflect on Mason’s efforts for the greater good.

Author Robert Rutland said it best, “Mason’s quarrel with the final form of the Constitution, far from reducing his stature as an intellectual leader, serves to confirm it.”
Two visitors walk along the path that leads from behind the main house to the Potomac River as a flock of Canadian geese pass by. During Mason's time at Gunston Hall he had a clear view of the river unobstructed by trees.

Two visitors walk along the path that leads from behind the main house to the Potomac River as a flock of Canadian geese pass by. During Mason's time at Gunston Hall he had a clear view of the river unobstructed by trees.

A meat pie, suppawn, or bean porridge available for a tourist?

While these 1700’s food staples may have gone the way of the candle for light, there is a tasty option available at Gunston Hall: Amphora Catering. Its freshly-made lunch options are on the Gunston Hall website. Your order is delivered free of charge to the Gunston Hall Visitors Center. A veggie roasted red pepper hummus sandwich, pasta salad with fresh vegetables, kettle chips, and chocolate chip cookie were a perfect way to end my time at Gunston Hall. Traversing historic landmarks can be exhausting for the modern American!

One of the many lunch options available for delivery to Gunston Hall by Amphora Catering.

One of the many lunch options available for delivery to Gunston Hall by Amphora Catering.

An ongoing experiment

The day after I toured Gunston Hall I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Eboo Patel, president of Interfaith Youth Core talking about politics. Patel aptly stated, “America is a long-term experiment.” Thanks to George Mason’s commitment to individual freedoms we can participate in this experiment. We proudly call it democracy, he simply called it liberty.

The view from the front porch of Gunston Hall.  This beautiful rows of Magnolia trees on either side of the path were Cherry trees during George Mason's time.

The view from the front porch of Gunston Hall. This beautiful rows of Magnolia trees on either side of the path were Cherry trees during George Mason's time.

If you go:

  • The house and museum are open daily 9:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
  • Grounds close at 6:00 p.m.
  • Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day.
  • Plenty of free parking available.

    References:
  • Book by Robert Allen Rutland, "George Mason: Reluctant Statesman" published 1961
  • Book by Bernard Schwartz, "The Great Rights of Mankind" published 1992
  • Tour with Mason Hall docent

Join the conversation
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There are 2 comments , add yours!
Antonio Gil 1 year, 11 months ago

Thank you so much for such a comprehensive and detailed report of this man and his house. I didn't knew George Mason. Now I've learned more one thing about USA and its beginnings.

1 year, 11 months ago Edited
E Bellizzi Replied to Antonio Gil 1 year, 11 months ago

Appreciate your kind words.  I was fortunate to have a tour during the week so I was the only one on the tour and I could ask lots of questions! The property is just beautiful. With only 30,000 visitors a year, Gunston Hall does not have the same drawing power of his neighbor up the road, George Washington's Mount Vernon.  However, the Gunston Hall staff does a great job of using Mason's legacy to teach others about individual rights and freedoms.

1 year, 11 months ago Edited
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