The fourth George Mason (1725-1792), builder of Gunston Hall, was a delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention and refused to sign its resulting U.S. Constitution because it didn’t put enough limits on the Federal Government. He, along with Patrick Henry (“Give me Liberty or give me Death”), insisted that “restrictive clauses” should be added to the Constitution to prevent an abuse of Federal power. His stance on the Constitution and his authorship of the Virginia Declaration of Rights earned George Mason the title “Father of the Bill of Rights”. Mason’s reputation doesn’t end there. Jefferson called him “the wisest man of his generation,” Madison called him “the ablest debator,” and others described him as “a genial, well-read, cultivated gentleman and a man of social parts”.
“That all men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights…”
Mason’s ca. 1758 home still stands today in Fairfax County, Virginia, overlooking the Potomac River. The estate name was derived from the Mason family ancestral homestead in Staffordshire, England, in the hamlet called “Gunston”. Just two decades prior to the colonies divorcing from the Mother Country, it is remarkable that Gunston Hall’s fashion, style, materials, furniture, architect, craftsmen, artwork, and more were inspired directly by English styles, if not readily obtained from England. In the mid-1600s an earlier George Mason first obtained the proprietorship of Virginia’s Gunston Hall property. Ultimately consisting of about 7,000 acres, the property spread near what is now the District of Columbia, along the great river “Pawtomake”. Mason’s childhood friend, George Washington, lived nearby at Mount Vernon—only five miles north of Gunston Hall by river and about 16 miles by road.
Gunston Hall’s exterior architecture features a blend of English Georgian and Colonial styles, while the interior displays English Rococo, Palladian, Chinese Chippendale, French Modern, and Gothik “presents a splendid picture of a tide-water Virginia house.” Among several fascinating interior details is an odd and intriguing wooden pole leaning in a hallway. The caretaker delights in quizzing those who are puzzled about its function The simple object ingeniously folds out to create a serviceable ladder. . . yet another invention of fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.
While the house is relatively simple and only one-and-a-half stories, the architectural details, absolute proportions, and the general academic accuracies strongly suggest the involvement of architects and craftsmen trained in the dignified classical precedents of Greece and Rome. Archeological research continues in and around the house, constantly revealing new findings, shedding new light by evidence, and solving long-standing mysteries.
For years those frustrating unknowns included the exact origination of the architectural design, as well as the builder. But recently researched information has shown the probable involvement of expert designers, craftsmen, and master carvers hired directly by George Mason and brought to Virginia from London, England. Architect William Buckland (1734-1774) trained as a joiner/carpenter in England and then crossed the Atlantic to Virginia as a servant indentured to George Mason. While it is believed the exterior building shell was already completed when Buckland arrived, the interior design is attributed to his skill. Master Carver William Bernard Sears (?–1818) is credited with translating Buckland’s designs into beautiful carved wooden works of art. Not much is known of Sears’s birth and early life, but he is also believed to have begun his indenture at Gunston Hall. After their indentures expired, Mr. Sears and Mr. Buckland often worked together on homes and churches in the area into the 1770s until Buckland’s death and Sears’s apparent retirement as a master carver tradesman.
Today, Gunston Hall’s importance to the American story is readily accessible and available to all who are willing to invest the time and embark on an adventure of exploration. However, the property, the mansion, the outbuildings and the cemetery were almost forgotten and lost to neglect and financial hardship. The estate survived generational deaths and other difficulties to remain in the Mason family through the Civil War. But in 1867 Gunston Hall began several decades of decline, repeated sales, and skeptical lease conditions until finally, in 1912, it was purchased for $24,000 by Louis Hertle (1860-1949), a successful businessman from Cincinnati and Chicago.
Mr. Hertle began a serious restoration process in 1913 by commissioning prominent historian and architect Glenn Brown (1854-1932). While not widely known today, Mr. Glenn Brown’s architectural career was illustrious and significant during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A child of Alexandria, Virginia, Brown was destined (or so his father thought) for medicine, law or the ministry, as only those “were callings fit for a gentleman.” However, Brown fell in love with architecture and trained at MIT, being heavily influenced in his early years by H.H. Richardson, who has an academic style named for him—Richardson Romanesque. Brown began his own practice in 1880 and subsequently enjoyed a long career of new construction projects, as well as large-scale urban planning achievements. Ultimately he developed an expertise in historic restorations . . . including that of Gunston Hall.
Upon his death in 1949 having no children or heirs, Hertle gifted Gunston Hall to the Commonwealth of Virginia to be administered by Regents from The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, who maintain it to this day.
George Mason is perhaps one of the lesser known of the Founders, but his legacy cannot be diminished. Without his efforts 240 years ago in authoring or co-authoring the 10 amendments we now call the Bill of Rights, America could not function and may have faltered by now. Imagine how your life would be without trial by jury, freedom of speech (note the recent marches in Washington, DC), right to public assembly (again, note the recent marches in Washington, DC), due process, and the right to bear arms. We salute Mr. George Mason, who never pursued political office, and declined when elected the first US senator from Virginia. He never pursued a legal license nor engaged in legal practice, and yet he was “one of the foremost legal minds of his time whose counsels were coveted by lawmakers and lawgivers.”