Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks

By Susan Blankenship

There are no references to Thanksgiving Day in 17th and 18th century Virginia, although the concept was first introduced nationally by a Congressional proclamation in October 1782. That said, the weeks following the annual harvest were often times of giving thanks communally for bountiful crops, safe passage to the colonies, temperate weather, and of fellowship and family celebrations.

George and Ann Mason of Gunston Hall were well-known hosts for such 18th century gatherings, with guest lists including not only local residents and Truro Parish worshippers, but also noteworthy founding fathers such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Henry. What grand gatherings these must have been.

As I prepared my home for a family Thanksgiving, I wondered if George Mason would have ever imagined that his home, though opulent and well-built, would still be standing in 2013, so very close to its original appearance, and welcoming guests from around the world. 

What a monument and legacy literally thousands have created together in his honor. With this in mind, the Staff of Gunston Hall offers thanks to the generous and insightful people who have lovingly and painstakingly made this achievement possible. They include: Members of the Gunston Hall Board of Regents and The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America, knowledgeable stewards and supporters of the property, who have insisted that restoration and maintenance be at the highest level of research and scholarship. The Commonwealth of Virginia, who received ownership of the property through last private owner Louis Hertle’s will and sustains Gunston Hall as an educational agency. The Friends of Gunston Hall, who are loyal and generous members of our most important annual fund raising program. The Gunston Hall Docents’ Association, volunteers who skillfully help plan and staff the many fine educational tours and annual public programs offered. The Gunston Hall Historic Interpreters’ Society, who re-create persons from the past with creativity and encourage audience engagement. The Mason Neck neighbors, civic associations and residents who embrace and support Gunston Hall as a significant asset to the community. There are many more individuals and organizations to which we owe thanks; unfortunately space and a reader’s patience prevent a complete listing. Please know that you are appreciated no less than those explicitly listed above.

Today and every day we give our humble thanks to you, our friends and supporters. We could not do it without you.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Louis Hertle Restores Gunston Hall

By Mark Whatford
Deputy Director 

In November of 1912, retired Chicago businessman Louis Hertle in search of a historic home visited the Washington, DC area responding to a letter concerning the sale of ‘Snowden’ in Fredericksburg, Virginia which was later withdrawn from sale. Hertle looked at a number of other properties, not to his liking, before being shown Gunston Hall by its then owner Mrs. Kester, mother of the late playwright and author, Vaughn Kester. Hertle was impressed by Gunston Hall, but decided to look at other Virginia properties before making a decision. Hertle visited another historic property for sale near Fredericksburg, called Chatham. The home was offered at a very low price and fully furnished. But the lure of Gunston Hall was too strong. Visiting the property again and meeting with Paul Kester, Vaughn’s brother and current occupant of the house, Hertle made an offer and purchased Gunston Hall for the sum of $24,000.

In January 1913, Hertle contacted the Washington Architect Glenn Brown who after visiting Gunston Hall commented on Hertle’s purchase, “How did you have the nerve to buy this old place?” Glenn Brown and his son Bedford started working on plans and hiring workmen for the restoration. Hertle lived in a cottage onsite for most of 1913 while work went on at Gunston Hall. Local labor was responsible for a majority of the work and a dozen of those were all men from Shiloh Baptist Church.

Hertle purchased a new Cadillac car to commute between Washington and Gunston Hall, the novelty of a car on Mason Neck caused a stir among the congregation of Shiloh Baptist Church, although the poor roads made the use of the car in the winter months impossible.

During the restoration, The tower constructed by Col. Daniels c.1870 was removed, layers of paint were stripped from the brick exterior, and plumbing and central heating were installed for the first time in the house. The present servant staircase had been converted into a closet for the first floor bed chamber. Hertle had the back staircase restored leading from the basement to the second floor. Hertle remarks on workmen removing about 5 layers of wallpaper from the Palladian room down to the pine boards, with the earliest paper c.1850.

To mark the hundredth anniversary of Hertle’s purchase and the start of his restoration, and also the Virginia Year of the Historic House, we hosted a Seminar this past November 16th with invited speakers focusing on the history and preservation of historic homes. Presenting were;

  • Sarah Dillard Pope, Ruins, Memory, and Imagination: ContemporaryArchitectural Design Solutions at Historic Menokin
  • Judy Anderson, A Century of Preservation at the Jeremiah Lee Mansion in Marblehead, MA
  • Dr. Carl Lounsbury, The Chesapeake House: Architectural Investigation by Colonial Williamsburg
  • Mark Wenger, The Restoration of James Madison's Montpelier
  • Doug Harnsberger, Addressing the Restoration Challenges at the 1757 Georgian Manor "Salubria" Following the Destructive Mineral Earthquake
We want to thank our speakers and attendees for helping us celebrate an important milestone for Gunston Hall. We will continue to investigate and continue the restoaration process on Gunston Hall so that it will be appreciated for many generations to come.
People and Places
Snowden House is the home of Mary Washington Healthcare Foundation. The house was acquired by the healthcare system in 1989, when it purchased the surrounding land to build a new hospital and medical campus. The estate dates back to the 1770s. The original main house was destroyed in 1925 by a fire and then was later rebuilt in 1926. A stone house that was built in 1770 still stands today.

Vaughan or Vaughn Kester (September 12, 1869 – July 4, 1911) was a U.S. novelist and journalist. He was the elder brother of dramatist and author Paul Kester (1870–1933). His style and topics were influenced by his travels through western and southern U.S., and by his mother's cousin William Dean Howells. His novel, "The Manager of the B & A," was made into a film in 1916 directed by J.P. McGowan, with Leo Maloney and Helen Holmes, reissued in 1921 as "The Man from Medicine Hat." He married Jessie B. Jennings from Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 31, 1898. They had no children. In 1902, with his brother, he purchased and renovated Woodlawn Plantation. From 1907, he lived at Gunston Hall, where he wrote The Prodigal Judge, and where he died.

Chatham Manor is the Georgian-style home completed in 1771 by William Fitzhugh, after about 3 years of construction, on the Rappahannock River in Stafford County, Virginia, opposite Fredericksburg. It was for more than a century the center of a large, thriving plantation. Flanking the main house were dozens of supporting structures: slave quarters, a dairy, ice house, barns, stables.

Shiloh Baptist Church, founded in 1869 and built on land purchased from Col. Daniels in 1872, is across Gunston Road at the entrance to Gunston Hall.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mother of the Forgotten Founder

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

George Mason may be left out of the mix when the American Founders are mentioned, but even more than men, women are often left out of the historical record.  Not much is known about the women who surrounded Mason.  His mother, Ann Thomson Mason, is one of the women we know a little more about.

Reverend John Moncure, a family friend, said of her "She was a good woman, a great woman, and a lovely woman."  She was also a strong and capable woman, as put to the test with the death of her husband in 1735, which left her with three young children and a great deal of land to manage with the assistance of the children's paternal uncle, John Mercer.

Records suggest that she was incredibly successful in this endeavor.  Upon the age of legal majority in 1746, George Mason came into full responsibility for thousands of acres spanning Virginia from the Northern Neck into modern Fairfax County, as well as land in Charles County, Maryland.  This includes the property at Stump Neck where they are believed to have resided at the death of George Mason III.

Records are slim again until 1760, when Ann Thomson Mason drew up her will, and edited it in November of 1762, shortly before she died.  Ann appointed her friend and relation, the Reverend John Moncure, as her executor.  He produced her will in court in December 1762.  Contrary to popular belief, women could indeed own property in the 18th century, and Ann Thomson Mason was one of those fortunates.

She left her "land lying on Goose Creek in Charles County' in Maryland" to George Mason IV, and to a favored nephew, "five hundred acres of land lying in Loudoun County."  Most of the other bequests were for smaller items, "silver salvers," the "stock of horses, cattle, sheep and hogs," and "my ring and castors, two salts [and] my soop spoons."

Misfortune had again greeted this stoic 18th century matriarch in 1751 with the death of her daughter Mary Mason Selden.  Ann left a number of items to her grandchildren of that line, including household goods, slaves and livestock.  The most touching bequest to those children was this:

"It is my will and desire that my cousin Frances Moncure, the wife of John Moncure, Clerk, take care of my daughter Mary Thomson Selden's picture now in my hall and give it to my grandson Samuel Selden when he comes of age, but if he should die before he becomes of age that then it be given to my granddaughter Mary Selden."

Ann Thomson Mason was 62 years old when she died on November 13, 1762.

Rowland, Kate Mason. The Life of George Mason. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A New Future for a New Gunston Hall

In 2012, the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall initiated a planning process designed to articulate strategies necessary for the advancement of Gunston Hall over the next five years.  Led by a committee of Regents, this process also included the participation, involvement, and input of a diverse group of volunteers, neighbors, community leaders, political figures, subject matter experts, partners, and representatives of the staff team.  The Strategic Planning Committee sought this broad constituency as part of a renewed organization-wide commitment to engagement and the energy, insight, and inspiration provided by these supporters informed and shaped the resulting Plan in significant ways.  Accordingly, on behalf of the Regents, I am honored and pleased to thank all those who participated in development of the Plan. The Plan’s richness, breath, and scope would not have been possible without these dedicated individuals; thank you!

The Board of Regents of Gunston Hall adopted the Strategic Plan during their October meeting and I am excited to publically share key aspects of this Plan in our Blog.  Specifically, the Plan articulates the following:


That both George Mason and Gunston Hall achieve broader national recognition, George Mason for the significance of his unique contributions to the universal cause of human rights and Gunston Hall as a premier historic site, for the purpose of increasing the knowledge and understanding of those we serve.


To utilize fully the physical and scholarly resources of Gunston Hall to stimulate continuing public exploration of democratic ideals as first presented by George Mason in the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.


1.       Integrity                                                5.    Creativity
2.       Accessibility                                         6.    Collaboration
3.       Authenticity                                          7.    Initiative
4.       Service                                                 8.    Leadership


1.       We will facilitate a dynamic learning environment.
2.       We will keep George Mason and his work central to our programs.
3.       We will focus on service and the guest experience in all our on-site, off-site and digital
4.       We will facilitate experiences based on scholarship, that are physically and intellectually
          accessible, and that are inclusive.
5.       We will encourage learning, reflection, dialogue, engagement, and enjoyment.
6.       We will seek collaborations and partnerships.
7.       We will demonstrate a commitment to operational and environmental sustainability.


  1. To establish Gunston Hall as a national and international resource for the study and interpretation of the Virginia Declaration of Rights as a document of enduring international significance and the pivotal role of George Mason as its author.
  2. To create a dynamic mix of authentic educational experiences providing value, impact, and benefit to a diverse audience.
  3. To establish a structure of governance which meets the intent of the Deed of Gift, through collaboration between the Board of Regents of Gunston Hall, Inc., a private non-profit corporation, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  4. To sustain an acclaimed reputation for Gunston Hall, capture the hearts and minds of our stakeholders, and effectively promote and share what we are uniquely able to provide to those we serve.
  5. To enhance operational, strategic, and financial sustainability by utilizing the necessary knowledge and resources to be successful as an organization.
  6. To preserve in superior condition Gunston Hall, the cultural resources, and the natural ecosystems entrusted to our care; to provide an accessible, comfortable, sustainable, and safe environment for all our stakeholders; and to facilitate a gateway experience for our guests through our management of this unique site that enriches all who visit.
  7. To facilitate authentic, accessible, research and collections based experiences for our guests which will maximize opportunities associated with the distinctive cultural resources of Gunston Hall.

As we hope you can discern from the Plan itself, Gunston Hall is passionately committed to education, collaboration, community, stewardship, reputation, and sustainability.  These foundational concepts are incorporated into the Plan in myriad ways. Equally important, we are committed to benchmarks, measurements, metrics, evaluation, and a process of collective review which will assess our public impact and value as determined by you, our guests, members, and friends.  As such, much in the same way the development of the Plan relied upon a host of perspectives and voices, the success of our Plan will also rely on how well we meet the needs of our public.

In many ways, therefore, this is not our Plan, this is OUR plan, inclusive of all those associated with Gunston Hall or who have a stake in our work.  This Plan, OUR Plan, is not a static bound document for periodic internal use, it is a public statement of aspirations and values and ideas that we hope and expect to evolve based on our collective and shared effort to fulfill our vision and mission. This Plan, OUR Plan, is also not an expression of hope, it is an expression of belief—belief in Gunston Hall, belief in the lasting relevance and importance of George Mason and his writings, belief in the importance of historic sites as places for dialogue, learning, inspiration, and action, and belief in our ability to positively and proactively provide something critically important and of value to those we serve.

In conclusion, George Mason is often referred to as the “forgotten founder.”  As we embark on this new beginning, guided by OUR Plan, we will ensure Mason is no longer “forgotten,” but we will also ensure all of you, those who are involved at the founding of this new beginning and those of you who, through your time, effort, and financial support ensured the sustainability and continuing vitality of Gunston Hall from its first founding, are also not forgotten.


Scott Muir Stroh III
Executive Director
November 6, 2013