Upper-class Virginia was a tight-knit society made even more so by the fact that many of Virginia’s wealthy planters lived on neighboring plantations. Such was the case with George Washington and George Mason, a lesser-known but substantially influential founding father.
From a 21st-century perspective, one of the neatest things about these ancient farmers’ proximity is that anyone visiting Mount Vernon can take an 11-mile trip slightly down the Potomac River and tour Gunston Hall, Mason’s estate.
Obviously Mason is a man worth remembering for more than his fancy house though: From his seat in the Virginia Legislature he wrote Virginia’s Declaration of Rights and as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 he was one of the most vocal members, arguing against a strong federal government and for abolishing the slave trade. He would ultimately be one of three members to refuse to sign the Constitution, but his work on Virginia’s Declaration of Rights would serve as groundwork for James Madison’s Bill of Rights.
Mason’s refusal to support the Constitution would effectively end his friendship with Washington, who thereafter referred to Mason as his “former friend.” The two had been pals since their teenage years — Mason had based Gunston Hall on the original Mount Vernon Mansion, before it was added onto by Washington’s multiple additions. Washington and Mason had hunted together, helped build and then attended nearby Pohick Church, and traded plantings and cuttings.
Martha Washington came immediately to Gunston Hall to comfort Mason when his wife died in 1773, and Mason requested that Washington be present as well — he came several days later.
Gunston Hall was filled with children; Mason and his wife, Ann Eilbeck Mason, had nine who survived. Ann Eilbeck Mason lived until age 39, having married Mason in 1750 when she was 16 and he was 25. Gunston Hall was built in 1755 in the then-popular Georgian style by architect William Buckland. Intricate woodwork throughout was accomplished by master carver William Bernard Sears.
Visitors today can tour the house’s two floors of richly furnished rooms. The first story contains four chambers: two for public life and two for private life, including the Masons’ bedchamber. The upstairs holds a variety of bedrooms, which were used by the Masons’ many guests and children.
The grounds contain outbuildings such as a kitchen, washroom and schoolhouse plus a walkway out the back door hedged in by 250-year-old boxwoods. Mason inherited 32 slaves and only purchased two during his lifetime, most likely to bring together a family. By his death, Mason had 92 slaves due to natural increase.
Gunston Hall is open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Entrance fees are $9 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children ages 6 to eighteen. It’s worth the stop for anyone headed out to the Mount Vernon area, and unlike George Washington, we won’t hold it against you.