Historic Structures

Building Description Gunston Hall, Mason Neck, Lorton Virginia

Built between 1755 and 1758, Gunston Hall is a one and one-half story cottage set on a high foundation broken by windows lighting the basement. Constructed of brick laid in Flemish bond, its simplicity is set off by stone quoins and a modillioned cornice across the two fronts, which at the gable ends ascends the rake in place of a barge board. The gable roof is pierced by five dormers with triangular pediments and balanced by two tall interior chimneys at each end.

While the design of the exterior of the five bay structure is attributed to George Mason, the north and south porches were designed and executed by William Buckland, as was all of the strikingly beautiful interior woodwork of the house. The north porch has two pairs of Doric columns supporting an arched central bay surmounted by a broad pediment. The south porch (the river side) is a unique piece of Colonial Gothic: an engaged octagon with five of its eight faces exposed. The octagon is embellished with Doric pilasters and frieze; the ogee arches between the pilasters were probably suggested by the illustration of an "octangular umbrello" in Batty Langley's 1742 "Gothic Architecture Improved by Rules and Proportions in Many Grand Designs".

The gable ends of the building each have three double-hung sash windows, six over six, in the second story, as well as a bulls eye window lighting the attic. The east gable end has an entrance to the hall between the library and the Mason's bedroom, for access to both dining areas from the kitchen yard, which has been reconstructed just to the east of the house. Pilasters flank the door, a semicircular fan light matching the design of the one over the north entrance, but slightly smaller, is over the door, and the whole is topped by a pediment. Three steps lead up to the door. On the west gable end, a small projecting entrance, looking remarkably like a dog house, gives access to the cellar. It is built of brick and has a gable roof of its own with a dentil running up the eaves.

The interior, elaborately decorated by Buckland, has a basic center hall plan, with two rooms on each side. Entering the north door, one sees a wide hall running the length of the house, bisected by a curious pair of eliptical arches. The spandrel between them is a pendant single triglyph with baroque scrolls, from the spring of which hangs a carved drop. The archway leads to a double-run staircase up the east wall. The stair treds are unusually narrow, accommodating only two balusters to each step. The balusters are unusually heavy but are nonetheless graceful because of the tall tapering fluted shafts. The brackets are carved with simple acanthus scrolls. The walls of the hallway are the only ones in the house that have full panneling.

The public rooms of the house are on the west side. To the southwest is the reknowned Palladian Room, perhaps the most important example of carved decoration of its period in the entire country. The chair rail, the baseboard, the entablatures and pilasters of the doors and windows, and the trim of the oval, arched-top cupboards are all profusely ornamented. The doors, windows, and cabinets have frames composed of fluted Doric pilasters, the windows and doors being crowned with full entablatures. Above the doors rise broken pediments, and similar pediments enclose the arches of the cabinets which flank the fireplace. The cornice is also richly carved. The woodwork is painted a soft putty color, with the baseboard and the interior of the cabinets a darker shade. The walls are covered with crimson silk damask. The present mantel is not original; during the restoration carried out by Mr. Louis Hertle, the Victorian mantels were removed and compatible ones were manufactured using details from the carving in the room. Recent restoration has removed this mantelshelf and the heavy overmantel (which is the one illustrated in most photographs of the room). The marble mantel now in place is a family piece, probably French, c. 1792. It has caryatids supporting the mantel shelf and three swags across the frieze. A copy of the Hesselius portrait of Anne Mason graces the area over the mantel. The Palladian Room was the formal parlor. It is furnished with Queen Anne and Chippendale pieces.

To the northwest is the Chinese Chippendale Room, a room unique in Virginia. Far simpler than the Palladian Room, it has exquisitely light carving adorning the doors and windows with entablatures cresting the concave scallops. The mantel is a conjectural one, using motives from the other carved decoration in the room, the consols being copies of the keystone over the doors. The dado is sheathed with moulded cap and base. The window embrasures are shuttered, and window seats are formed by recessed panels in the dado. The room was the formal dining room and is furnished with a Queen Anne table and serving table and Chippendale chairs with ribbon backs and ball and claw front feet. A copy of a copy of the portrait of George Mason by Hesselius adorns the area over the mantel.

The family rooms are on the east side of the house. To the south is the family sitting-room, dining room, and library, one of those all purpose colonial rooms. During the ownership of Louis Hertle, it was used as a dining room. This room has the only original mantelpiece in the house; all of the woodwork in the room is original except the wood panel doors in the closets flanking the fireplace. The simplicity of the decoration in this room is in contrast to the elaborate work in the public rooms.

Between the family sitting room and the master bedroom to the northeast is a transverse service hall opening to the east to a porch and walkway to the kitchen building and on the west to the main hall just north of the double arch leading to the staircase. A service staircase in the north wall of the hall has been removed.

The northeast room, or master bedroom, has deep closets flanking the fireplace. The simplicity of the woodwork here recalls that in the family sitting-room.

In the hall at the head of the stairs three eliptical arches, echoing the double arches in the downstairs hall, are supported by three posts. Facing the bannister one sees, across the stairwell, a bit of coffered ceiling between two dormer windows. The upstairs hall was used as a musicians' gallery for dances that were held in the wide downstairs hall, the coffered ceiling providing a sounding board to project the music into the hall.

There are six small, low-pitched rooms on the second floor with dormer windows and a central hall that runs from gable to gable. These were bedrooms for the children and the governess. There is an attic above.

The grounds south of the house are richly landscaped. The boxwood allee is original; the formal gardens have been restored by the Garden Club of Virginia. There is a two mile nature trail east of the main building. A cemetery containing the graves of George Mason and his first wife, Anne, is also maintained on the grounds. All of the outbuildings are recent reconstructions. Structures which do not contribute to the significance of the landmark include the visitors' center, two modern gazebos in the garden, and all of the managerial buildings: director's home, manager's home, another employee home, two garages, the maintenance building and the public restrooms.