VIRGINIA'S COLONIAL HOUSES
Learn all about Virginia's great colonial houses
GUNSTON HALL (The House)

   Gunston Hall

Gunston Hall River Elevation

       George Mason IV began construction of a new house for his growing family in 1754.  Situated on the Potomac River in Dogue's Neck in Fairfax County—what is today called Mason’s Neck--the house came to be called Gunston Hall, named after the ancestral seat of Mason's maternal grandfather, Gerald Fowkes.  Mason chose a site for his new house about a mile inland from Pohick Bay.  The mansion was built on a portion of land adjoining his Aunt Bronaugh’s leased estate, Newtown.

            Mason’s house sat between the Potomac River and the King’s Highway on the land side of the mansion.  It was one of the first brick structures in Northern Virginia  It was built of Flemish bond brick and adorned with sandstone quoins taken from a quarry on Aquia Creek. The floorplan was simple and conventionally Georgian, resembling Washington’s Mount Vernon before he began expanding it in the 1760s.  The house was part of a large estate of more than 5,000 acres, the center of what was a working, self-subsisting village and plantation dedicated largely to tobacco farming. 

            Building plans were initially overseen by a local architect.  We don’t know for sure who he was, but it has been speculated that it may have been William Waite, a distant relative of Mason’s and someone who had been involved with Mason in the vestry of Truro Church. Two trained workers possibly involved in building the house were James Brent and a master bricklayer named Thomas Spalding who was hired by Mason sometime after 1752.

            Construction of the basic house was largely completed by 1755.  Sometime around this time William Buckland arrived in Virginia.  He was a London-trained builder and expert carpenter and joiner who had been an indentured servant of George Mason’s younger brother, Thomas.   Mason hired Buckland to finish the interior of the house.  He added elaborate carvings from the fashionable rococo style to the Central Passage, the Palladian and Chinese Rooms, and the details of the two porches.  It is likely that the private rooms for the family were already completed by the time Buckland set to work, and that he had little to do with them.  He and his team spent most of the next four years working on and finishing the public rooms and porches. When he completed his work in 1759, Mason released Buckland from his indentured contract and gave him a glowing recommendation.

 

ARCHITECTURE AND DESIGN

Architectural Drawing

   Architectural Drawing     

       Gunston Hall was small by the grand standards of the Governor's Palace, Sabine Hall and Rosewell.  The architecture historian Thomas Tileston Waterman calls it more of a “cottage” than a mansion.   Regardless, it was an exquisite gem of taste and refinement.  It was one of the first brick structures in Northern Virginia.  At a time when most Virginians lived in two room wooden houses or even rude cabins, Gunston Hall was as a bold statement of wealth and status.

             The final product may be grand, but the basic ingredient—the plan of the house--is quite modest.  It is practically a textbook rendering of the strict symmetrical style of Georgian architecture.  The ground floor plan follows the typical Virginia house structure of four rooms--two front and two back--with a large center passage separating them.  It is similar to Westover in Virginia and the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Upstairs, however, was not typical at all.  Instead of mirroring the four rooms downstairs, it crammed in numerous small rooms to accommodate Mason’s large family.

             Gunston Hall is a compact monument to harmony and order. The house is a rectangle of 40 feet and 11 and half inches by 60 feet 10 inches.  It is 33 feet and 1 inch high.  On the corners of the outside walls are bevel-edged sandstone quoins taken from a quarry near Aquia.  Dead center in the front and back of the house are entrance doors flanked by two windows on each side.  Below each window are small English basement-style half windows.  On each end of the house are two rectangular shaped chimneys and three second story windows; basement door entrances were placed on the two side walls as well. On the second story are ten dormer windows with the middle one centered above the porches.  The sash windows are placed almost flush with the outer face of the walls.

 

CENTRAL PASSAGE

Central Passage

       The Central Passage is the main axis of the house separating the two wings in halves.  It is 12 feet wide with two 12 feet wide porticos on each end.  Two porticos divide the passage into two sections, the front or north side having a traditional cornice with a Wall-of-Troy dentil hand.  The south side has simpler trim.  The baseboards and chair rails on south front are similar to those in the front half of the passage on the north.  The two parts of the passage are divided by fluted Doric pilasters with pedestals supporting a double elliptical arch.  Hanging from the center of the arch is a carved pinecone.  The spandrels of the arches are of a French scroll design

             The landside portico has a single door capped with a semicircle arch and flanked by two rectangle windows.  The riverfront portico is exactly the same, although it is partially obscured from the hall vantage point by the ascending staircase. 

             We should see the Central Passage in the context of the overall space of both the house and its setting.  As mentioned, leading up to the landside of the house was a long straight road that went directly up to the north door.  A visitor would approach the house on horseback or in a carriage making its way along this long road.  After disembarking at the porch, the visitor would enter the door into the Central Passage.  There he or she would see the line from the road continue inside the house through the passage to the back of the house   What is more, if the back door was open, that line of sight would continue again outside into the garden onto another long straight walkway.  This path led all the way to the horizon disappearing above the river. 

             All this is no accident.  It was typical for architects at this time to symmetrically match the plot plans of the setting with the house in some geometric or mathematical fashion, such as happened on a grand scale at Stratford Hall.  

            The Central Passage was far more than a thoroughfare to the back of the house.  It was intended as dramatic entrance as well.  The first thing a visitor saw when he entered the hall was the rising staircase delightfully framed by double arches.  This was a clear aesthetic statement that he had entered a very and special place. 

             The Central Passage is lined by six symmetrical Doric pilasters.  Between the pilasters are yellow “pillar and arch” wallpaper depicting scenes from ancient Rome.  The arches of the wallpaper are echoed in the double arch with carved pine cone at the entrance of the stairs.  At one time the arch may have had a column instead of the pine cone, which would have mirrored the motif of the arches in the wallpaper. There are four doors along the side of the hall, one of which is false.  The visual effect intended is strict symmetry.  

            The Central Passage is the main public space for the house. It may have been intended for large public gatherings like balls or parties.  It is also an entranceway into the public rooms of the house, the Palladian Room which could function either as a formal room for dining or parlor, and the Chinese Room which may have been used primarily as a parlor.  As a formal gathering place, the Central Passage can be seen as the first stage in a visual play.  People would enter and be impressed by the grand symmetry of the hallway, and if invited into one of formal rooms, they would have been dazzled by the rococo brilliance of the bright red Palladian Room, or even shocked by the new Gothic strangeness of the Chinese Room.

 

PALLADIAN ROOM

 

Palladian Room

       The Palladian Room is the finest in the house.  Waterman describes it “perhaps the most important example of carved decoration of its period in the country.” It has been restored at different times in history.  The first major restoration occurred in the early 20th century.  However, most of the elaborate carvings in the room are original.  It is a remarkable testament to the owners of the house over the years that they recognized the value of these carving and protected them.    

             The Palladian Room is known for two distinct styles.  The first is British Palladianism, which is a style of architecture based on British interpretations of the designs of 16th century Venetian architect Andrea Palladio. The second is the high rococo style that was the last phase of the rococo before it evolved into neo-classicism at the end of the 18th century.  The high rococo, sometimes called French rococo, is reflected in the ornamentation used in the pilasters, capitals, entablatures, friezes and cornices of the fireplace, niches, doors and windows of the Palladian Room. 

             Visually unifying the busy rococo features of the Palladian Room is its symmetrical layout.  On the far side as you enter from the Central Passage, you see a white wall with a fireplace as the central visual feature.  It is flanked by the two niches.  Adjoining are two walls covered in red damask silk, one of which contains two very large windows looking out over the garden. The overall effect is one of proportioned symmetry.  This creates a classical sense of balance that acts as a stage for the elaborate ornamentation of the trim of the fireplace, windows and doors.  The rococo trim of the chair rails, pilasters, cornices and entablatures visually tie the room together.  Set against the red walls, the white painted trims establish balancing contrasts between the red and white.  The dark brown baseboards contribute to the unifying effect, while also creating a separating boundary between the ornate walls and the plain board flooring. 

       

CHINESE ROOM

Chinese Room

         The Chinese room is the most unusual in the house.  While the Palladian Room is very formal and conforms to the strict rules of Palladian architecture, the Chinese Room is playful and almost shocking in appearance.  It is the only room of its kind in Virginia at the time Gunston Hall was constructed in the 1750s.

             The room’s style was called chinoiserie in Mason’s day.  It was a variation of the rococo style, sometimes called Late Baroque that was imported from France to England in the 18th century.  The Chinese “taste” was inspired by the observation and import of Chinese porcelains and decorative arts in Europe.  Contact between Europe and China had been growing throughout the 17th century and the exotic porcelains and other items from China were prized possessions intended to show off wealth and prestige.  In the 1750s the Chinese style became a fashion statement in the houses of the wealthy in London.  It’s from there, through William Buckland, that it made its way to Gunston Hall. 

             The Chinese style was associated with the first Gothic revival in England in the early 18th century.  Pointed arches and other nostalgic designs from the Middle Ages were often added to rococo-inspired ornaments.  The intention was to create an air of frivolity and a sense of nostalgia, presaging the later Gothic revival movement of Romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was intentionally eclectic, playfully adding different elements together to heighten the effect of surprise.  Delighting in asymmetry, it is the very opposite in spirit to the strict symmetry of George architecture. 

            Originally Chinese motifs were found mostly on furniture, interior decorations and as ornamentations on vases, porcelains and clocks.   Motifs included simulated bamboo, pieces adorned with ormolu mandarins, and Chinese landscapes, dragons, pagodas.  Sometimes Chinese characters were painted on household porcelains and other items.  As a style, the Chinese taste was short-lived.  In hit Virginia in the mid-18th century was largely outdated by the Revolution.

             William Buckland got the idea for the Chinese motifs from Thomas Chippendale’s The Gentleman and Cabinet Maker’s Director, published in London in 1754.  The Chinese style is seen in the upturned scallops along the edge of the fireplace mantel shelf of the Chinese Room, atop the cornice above the fireplace breast, and on top of the doors.  The breast may have been intended to hold and display ceramics.  Its cornice has a Chinese stylized keystone in the center of the frieze flanked by two panels with a string of half circles. There are pagoda-like hoods on the upper walls.  The pagoda-roofed canopy above the central platform was probably also intended to display ceramic vases or figures as well, possibly of Chinese design.  Atop the canopy is a little pineapple to crown the whole effect.  The room’s trim is painted yellow ochre.  A bright color was to show off wealth.  Colored paints were expensive and statements of prestige. 

LITTLE PARLOR

Little Parlor

             The Little Parlor is opposite the Palladian Room on the north side of the house.  It is called that because George Mason mentions a “little parlor” in one of his letters.  The room had a variety of uses.  Mason certainly used it as a study and office. It would have likely been a place to receive guests conducting business with Mason.  It was also likely used by Mason and his family for informal dining and as a sitting room.  There is a vague reference in one of Mason’s letters to a bookcase in the “dining room” containing work papers.  He could have been referring to the Little Parlor or some other room.  Whatever the case, the Little Parlor was a clearly a multipurpose room used mainly by Mason and his family for business and domestic purposes. 

            For this reason, the Little Parlor is the least formal of the public rooms.  There is a broken pediment over the fireplace, and crown molding with large dentils; but there is nothing that would define this room as belonging to any particular classical order.  There are in fact no pilasters at all, Doric or otherwise.  The fireplace mantel is similar to what would have been found in any number of Virginia houses.  The fireplace breast displays the same little squares on the four corners of the panel that are also found in the fireplace breasts of the other rooms in the house.  It is capped by an oval-shaped broken pediment.  The two niches on each side of the fireplace are cupboards with arched paneled doors with cabinets below. They are capped by a keystone rising all the way up to just below the dentil molding.  They could have been used for storing any number of things—dishes, valuables, books or papers—but much of its space was likely taken up by the Mason family’s informal tableware.

             The color scheme of the Little Parlor is more modest than the other public rooms.  Its white walls and light gray trim are more in keeping the plain or “neat” style of classic Williamsburg houses.   The color contrast is reached by offsetting the white walls with the entire fireplace wall painted light gray.  The gray trim color is carried over to the crown molding and the dado below the chair rails.

 

CHAMBER

Chamber

            The Chamber on the first floor of the house was the Mason’s master bedroom.  It was not only a place where George and his wife could sleep, but also a retreat to which they could retire in privacy.  Increasingly in the 18th century ground floor chambers became a private space for family members to interact.  But it was a great deal more than this.  While the Little Parlor was George Mason’s work room, the Chamber was Mrs. Mason’s headquarters for managing the domestic staff and the plantation.  As with most private bedchambers, the mistress of the house kept the family’s most precious valuables in the bedchamber where she could keep a watchful eye over them.  John Mason remembers that his mother kept “smaller of the precious stores for the Table” in the closet to the left of the fireplace.   She also kept a green leather riding crop called the “green doctor” that she used to discipline her nine children. 

            In the hallway outside the Chamber was a servant’s staircase that originated in the basement.  It was intended as a passage way for servants to tend to their business without being seen.  They could pass all the way from the basement to the second floor without disturbing the Mason family.

            Because it is private, the Chamber is less ornate than the other rooms in Gunston Hall.  It has white washed walls which was common in mid-18th century houses.  The fireplace wall, trim and dado below the chair rail are all painted a green lacquer color which is quite striking.   It was applied in 1780 around the time of Mason’s marriage to Sarah Brent, his second wife.  The pocket shutters could be close for complete privacy and to further shut out cold drafts from the windows.

 

SECOND FLOOR

Second Floor Gallery

             The bedrooms on the second floor have undergone extensive renovations over the years.  Today it has seven bedchambers and a storage room (for a total of eight rooms) connected by a narrow passage running the length of the house.  As mentioned earlier, this arrangement is unusual; most large houses in the mid-18th century mirrored the room layout downstairs.  The reason for the change is the large size of Mason’s family.  The numerous small bedrooms were intended as sleeping quarters for Mason’s children.  Some of them are very small, described in an 1862 letter as “more like sleeping-closets of a hotel.”

             Of the seven bedrooms, the four ones in the corner of the house have the best accommodations.  They have not only more windows but fireplaces with wooden mantels painted to look like marble.   They have rather simple trim, for example round-molded chair rails; but there is no crown molding on the walls.   The three interior bedrooms have only one window and no fireplaces. As for the eighth or storage room, sometimes called the “lumber room,” it has no exterior source of light.  To fix the problem, a “robber window” was installed overlooking the staircase.  It “robs” light from the skylight above the staircase and brings it into the room.  The servant’s stair that starts in the basement and passes near the Chamber and opens up in the second floor interior bedroom on the north front of the house.   There is an attic as well that is accessible from one of the central rooms.  It is possible that servants slept in the attic and possibly even in the passage. 

              The most remarkable feature of the second floor architecturally is the triple arcade of the hall.  It is original to the house.  It has four elegant fluted pillars that visually separate the corridor from the main gallery overlooking the staircase.  Two of the pillars are free-standing and two embedded in the walls.  They are brown and crowned with large molded capitals below which are smaller cornice-like trims of different sizes.   The basic structures of the pillars are Doric.  The wallpaper from the Central Passage carries up the staircase into the gallery of the second floor.  

  

RESTORATIONS

        George Mason VI inherited Gunston Hall when his father died in 1796.  He made some improvements to the property over the next few years.  He added a lean-to or shed on the east side of the mansion. He tried to sell the house but found no takers

            George VI died without a will in 1836.  For ten years after that the ownership of the mansion was disputed.  Mason’s descendants filed a lawsuit in Alexandria court against George Mason Graham who claimed ownership over the dower rights of Eleanor Ann Clifton Patton Mason, the widow of George Mason VI.   The court eventually decided to give the estate to the Grahams.  Why another family won against direct Mason descendants is not known, but it may be that the numerous instances of intermarriage between the Grahams and the Masons had blurred the distinction between the two families.

           During the Civil War damage to the house was extensive.  It was occupied by troops from both sides of the conflict.  A report from this time mentioned that the house experienced “serious injury” during the Civil War.    A year after the war ended, in 1866, Eleanor Mason died, and her son, George Mason Graham (the grandson of George Mason IV) sold the property.  Thus ended 150 years of Mason occupation of the land of Mason’s Neck.

           Graham sold Gunston Hall to William Merrill and William Dawson.   Their ownership began a long period of neglect, defacing and decline for the old mansion and estate.  Merrill and Dawson’s interests were to turn a quick profit, mainly in timber.  The mansion was used as a boarding house for tenants and workers. 

           In 1868 Merrill and Dawson deeded to property to Edward Daniels of Wisconsin.  Unlike Merrill and Dawson, Daniels cared about the old house.  How much or what he did by way of restorations is not known completely, but we do know he spent $5,000.00 on improvements in the 1870s.  In 1875 he built the two tiered tower on the roof as an observation deck.  Daniels was a geologist and was interested in astronomy. 

           Daniels owned the mansion for many years. In the 1880s he leased it as a summer boarding house to Frank and S. M. Smith.  While Daniels treated the house with more care than Merrill and Dawson, he cannot be said to be a preservationist.  He not only altered the appearance of the house with the addition of the roof tower.  His frequent absences exposed the house to the wear and tear of renters.  Moreover, he did not try to keep the land of the estate together.  By the time he sold the house in 1891, he had let a large portion of the estate’s acreage go.   

           In 1890 Daniels rented the house to a writer named Harriett Kester.  She made some minor repairs and wanted to tear down the tower which she called “obnoxious.”  However, she did not stay in the house long.  In 1891 Daniels sold Gunston Hall, conveying 315 acres to Emma Specht.  Other parcels of the tract were leased out. Emma and her husband Joseph modernized the house and added a new and even larger lean-to on the east side to make better kitchen facilities.  It stretched all the way across the east wall of the mansion and had a large window on the south front overlooking the garden. They painted the exterior and put different wallpapers in the room.  They also added a new heating system. 

           All these 19th century renovations significantly altered the appearance of Gunston Hall. By 1900 Gunston Hall had lost a good deal of its original colonial character.

           The next person to own Gunston Hall was Louis Hertle. Hertle was a businessman from Chicago.  He was born in 1860 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved to Chicago at age thirteen.  He worked his way up the Marshall Field Company and became quite successful.  In 1910 he decided to retire to care for his ailing wife, former Ada Turnbull of Illinois.  After Ada died he looked for a farm to occupy his time and in 1912 settled on purchasing Gunston Hall.  In 1914 he married Eleanor Daughaday of Chicago who was a member of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.

           Louis and Eleanor Hertle undertook the first major historical restoration of Gunston Hall.  They were the firsts to undertake serious architectural investigations of the history of the house.  They were true preservationists.  They set the old house on a course of restoration that continues to this day.

           Many of the Chinese motifs were still present in the Chinese Room (called at this time the “Chippendale Room”) before the Hertle’s began restorations.  There were scalloped moldings over the doors and window frames with sawn frets.  The Browns installed a new fireplace mantel; two new closet doors were added; and fabric covering was put on the plaster walls. 

           The Browns removed several layers of wallpaper in the Palladian Room to reveal original 18th century pine sheathing. There was no evidence of paint on the wood, which suggests it had been originally covered with paper or fabric in the colonial period.  Hertle left the pine sheathing bare but he painted the carved woodwork white.  All the known missing woodwork such as chair rails was replaced. 

           Hertle built a new back staircase in the original stairwell located in the southeast corner of the Master Chamber, a feature known to have disappeared in 1890.   He replaced the staircase balusters in the Central Passage with copies of pine and painted them and the staircase spandrels white. 

           In Hertle’s time most of the elaborate carvings in the Palladian Room had survived.  The doors, windows, niches and crown molding look roughly as they do today.   The main difference was that the fireplace over mantel Hertle had installed in 1913 was different than the one we see today.  Moreover, the niches were painted white instead of blue, and there were doors at the bottom of the niches, whereas today they are open. In 1930 the walls of the Palladian Room were still uncovered and unpainted pine panels. 

           The second floor went through significant changes as well. Hertle found seven rooms and a deep closet upstairs and only a portion of the original long gallery through the center.  He partitioned off the long passage at the gable ends and added bathrooms.  The southeast and southwest rooms were enlarged.  A bathroom was placed on the north front next to the two major rooms. 

           The Hertles significantly restored the stairways starting in 1921.  The bottom step in the Central Passage stairway and the first portion of the hand rail were coped from original sections.  There are today only about three 18th century balusters left on the stairs, but all of the fluted newels at the stair turnings are original except for the one on the bottom step.  About half of the balusters were made about 1870s and the remainder were restored in the 1950s.

           By 1930, the exterior of Gunston Hall had gained much of its original colonial appearance.   Many of the 19th century additions had been removed.  The roof tower was gone.   However, the “lean-to” on the east side, which was not original, remained. 

           It wasn’t until the 1950s when Gunston Hall that another major restoration was undertaken.  They key individuals involved in the project was the First Regent, Mrs. Herbert Claiborne, and her husband, who was the contractor for the project; and the architect Fiske Kimball and his associate Erling Pedersen.  Kimball was a pioneer in the field of  architectural preservation, playing a huge role in the restorations of Monticello and Stratford Hall.  He had worked with Claiborne on Stratford Hall.  

           Kimball’s team removed the 19th century kitchen lean-to on the east side of the house.   They also removed the modern plumbing on the second floor, as well as the electrical features and the partition walls not found in the original house. Several changes were made to the Central Passage and the stairs.  The newel post, step and rail from the post-Civil War era were replaced with colonial style mahogany with a swirl and voluted end.  The Victorian wallpaper in the front passage was replaced and made changes in the trim to match colonial standards. 

           Controversies erupted between Kimball and the board over the details of the restoration.  One of the biggest was over the back staircase protruding into the Chamber space that Kimball called an “ugly jut.”  We now believe that the back staircase was originally added by Buckland to update Mason’s old-fashion design.  This would explain the evidence not only of 18th century workmanship but the fact that the door was moved by Buckland to accommodate the new placement of the stairs.  Thus today we see the reconstruction of the back stairs as Buckland would have built them. 

           Another controversy concerned the wall coverings in the Palladian Room.  Kimball believed that the pine sheathing that Hertle had left bare should be painted.  He cited as evidence traces of gray color on the pine boards.  The Claibornes favored covering the walls with a silk damask.  The battle raged until early 1952 when a poll was taken of the Regents.  They declared overwhelmingly in favor of the silk.  Kimball resigned as lead architect over this decision, but he was talked into returning by Mrs. Claiborne.  The Regents, however, remained steadfast and Kimball eventually conceded.  Today the walls of the Palladian Room are covered with a reproduction of an 18th century styled red silk damask. 

           Most of the woodwork in the Chinese Room had survived by the time Kimball made his restorations.  Kimball designed and reconstructed a new fireplace mantel for the room using the carvings and frets from the doors and windows as an inspiration. The four unusual fish-scales consoles under each of the windows are copies.  Kimball added two new closet doors, but the door from the Central Passage was an old one reused. 

           Kimball’s restorations of Gunston Hall were major and historically significant.  They represent the heightened sense of authenticity and a new sophistication in architectural perseveration that had emerged in the mid-20th century after the example of Colonial Williamsburg.  Most of Gunston Hall’s original appearance that we enjoy today is the result of the work of Kimball and his team.   

           The north and south porches have undergone restorations. The shafts, capitals and bases of the Doric columns on the north porch are Kimball replacements.  The north entrance door is a copy of the original.  The superstructure of the riverside porch is partly restored, but many of its elements are actually original.  The brick foundation was rebuilt in the 1950s.  The pine boards on the floor are replaced as well.  All the trim and classical front pieces of the riverside porch were added by Fiske Kimball in the 1950s.

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