Reader Request Week has arrived! For this first piece of the week, I am filling a request from a reader who enjoys the “road trip” posts that I write. It has been a while since I’ve written one of these, but it just so happens we took a short road trip on Sunday…
After the great springlike weather we had on Saturday, we woke up Sunday to gloom and cooler temperatures. I’d planned for a quiet day at the house. A hike we were supposed to do fell through because our friends were sick. Not long after I woke up, Kelly asked what I thought about heading over to Gunston Hall, home of George Mason. I looked it up. It was only about half an hour away, so we packed up the kids and set on our way.
When we go on local road trips like this one, I prefer to stay off the highways. They might get us there faster, but there is rarely anything interesting to see from the highway. So we took back roads. Dense suburbs grew steadily less dense. Yards grew bigger. Soon we were driving on country roads surrounded by woods. It is one of the things I love about Virginia.
We arrived at Gunston Hall at 10:45 am. I had no idea how crowded it might be when we set out, and I was surprised to see only 5 other cars in the parking lot. Inside the museum building, we paid the entrance fee and were ushered into a small theater to watch a short film about George Mason. I learned more from that film than I had ever known about the man, but I suspect I was not alone. The film called Mason a “forgotten hero.”
Our tour was for 11 am, and our guide, Janie, met us right on time. As no one else was there at the time, it was just the five of us, plus Janie, so we got our own private tour of Gunston Hall. We left the museum building and walked down a short path that took us to the gravel road that led to the house. Though it looked modest from the outside compared to Mount Vernon or Monticello, the Georgia Mansion (named for King George) was surprisingly comfortable within.
One of the more interesting aspects of the house was its unusual symmetry. It was slightly longer on one side (the public side) than the other, although I suspect I wouldn’t have noticed had Janie not pointed it out. Inside, the symmetry was balanced in some interesting ways. For instance, the main hall divided the private side of the house (left) from the public side (right). The public side had two rooms. The private side had a hallway that further divided it between the Masons’ bedroom and George Mason’s office. However, the public side had no such hallway separating the rooms. In order to maintain the interior symmetry, however, a door was fixed into the wall where the hallway would have been. The door had no door knob, and behind it was a brick wall. The door was there simply for show, and to maintain that symmetry.
I’m always fascinated by the private offices and studies in old homes. Washington’s was large and open, with floor-to-ceiling shelves surrounded the desk. Jefferson was surrounded by hundreds of volumes of books. George Mason’s private study was notably spare. There were some papers in the secretary, but I saw no books of any kind anywhere in the study. In one corner of the study was a small pole ladder. It was an original, and Janie showed us a replica of how it worked, folding in and out to transform between a compact pole and a short ladder. I could use one of those around the house.
We were told about many guests to be found at Gunston Hall, among them George Washington, who lived nearby and who was good friends with Mason, until Mason refused to sign the Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights. Upon hearing that Washington was friends with Mason, the Little Miss stage whispered, “Daddy, I think George Washington was good friends because their names both had George in them.”
After exploring the house, we spent a little time exploring the grounds. Just outside the house was a kitchen, where a small class colonial cooking class was in session. There was a laundry building, as well as a small mill. On the opposite side was a schoolhouse where the Mason children took their lessons. Their teacher slept in a small, cozy room above the classroom.
It was chilly, and the gloom still hung over the estate, and so we decided to call it a day and head back to the car for the drive home. Passing through the museum, we saw that another small group was awaiting the noon tour. We passed a larger group of people coming in as we left the building. Business was picking up. We felt we’d lucked out with our spontaneous private tour. Driving home. I tried to imagine how long the 30 minute drive might have taken back in George Mason’s time. At least he wouldn’t have had to contend with the same kind of traffic.