Historical homes such as Gunston Hall and Mount Vernon provide an opportunity to study the lives of historical figures, such as George Mason and George Washington, in a multidimensional, realistic approach not easily achieved with textbooks. However, historic homes should not be seen as a stagnant image of the past but as a constantly evolving display of our knowledge of the past. Many historic homes, such as Gunston Hall, saw many changes through the years as ownership passed from one individual to another.
George Mason originally constructed Gunston Hall in 1755 -1759 as the “family seat.” After his death in 1792 the home remained in the family until 1867. Thereafter it passed through a series of owners who made changes to fit their needs and comforts and current trends. In 1949 Louis Hertle bestowed Gunston Hall to the Commonwealth of Virginia to be operated as a National Historical Site under the guidance of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.
Since its designation as a historical site, restoration projects have been ongoing. Initial efforts included the removal of all modern plumbing and electrical features except as necessary for running the heating and air conditioning systems for the preservation of historical artifacts and the comfort of visitors. The modern kitchen wing was removed and replaced with a replica of the historical kitchen yard. Inside partition walls were moved back to their original positions in order to restore the home’s original floor plan. Through the study of paint analyses, inventory lists, and period style books historians have either restored the rooms to their original paint color or install wallpaper popular in gentry’s homes from that period.
Some of the original restoration efforts of Gunston Hall were inaccurate. For example, a small spiral staircase was removed in the belief that it was not original to the house. Later research revealed that it would have been used by the slaves working in the house and it was reinstalled. Additionally, the boxwood garden was originally restored as a formal garden. However, the memoirs of George Mason’s son indicate that his father had a vegetable garden in that location. Therefore, the formal aspects have been removed and future plans include the installation of a food garden. The most current restoration project is the removal of the home’s slate roof and the installation of wood shingles in keeping with George Mason’s original construction. This project not only restores the house to its original appearance but also relieves the house foundation and walls from the extra weight of the slate roof that it was never designed to bear. It is important to note that the wooden shingles used today differ from the originals in one aspect; they have been specially treated to make them fire resistant as a safety measure.
Gunston Hall serves an interesting note on environmental sustainability. When George Mason constructed the home all of the building materials were obtained locally, except for the paint and window glass which were shipped from England. Today, however, the wood shingles being installed on the roof are coming from Washington State. Sometimes environmental sustainability and historical accuracy clash. For example, on the riverside of the house there are three viewing mounds where Mason could see the Potomac River. Today the view is obscured by full grown trees that would have been saplings at Mason’s time. Although the trees are located on Gunston Hall property, current environmental laws prevent their trimming or removal.