One must have lived at Gunston Hall, in winter and summer, in spring and autumn, to have any true appreciation of its charm. The old house has a personality which only intimate acquaintance can disclose. It is a small house standing on a plateau well back from the Potomac, quite self-centered and remote, but it easily takes rank with the famous houses of the world. Its greatness has not departed.
Gunston Hall was built in 1758 by George Mason, author of the Virginia Bill of Rights and the First Constitution of Virginia, and one of the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It has been said of Mason that he was the greatest constructive statesman the Western Hemisphere has produced. The broad principles which he enunciated underlie all our institutions. He was the neighbor and intimate friend of Washington; the friend and mentor of Jefferson who turned to the Bill of Rights for some of the noblest paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. His Constitution of Virginia was influential in shaping not only the constitutions of most of the other states of the Union but European constitutions as well.
Possessed of large wealth, Mason contented himself with building a small but perfect house on the plantation which he inherited from his father. It was said of him that he was never content beyond the sight of the smoke rising from the tall chimneys of Gunston. It is well known that he never sought public office and that he declined a seat in the Senate of the new nation. Here at Gunston Hall he lies buried only a short distance from the house he loved so well.
The Gunston estate remained in the Mason family until the War Between the States. It then suffered some vicissitudes, falling for a time into the possession of wood merchants who quartered their choppers in the quaint dormer-windowed bedrooms, negro families in the noble rooms on the ground floor, and stabled mules in the basement. Not a little damage resulted, and some fine old panelling was stripped from the walls. From this condition the old Hall was rescued by a Federal officer, Colonel Edward Daniels, who made it his home after the war. From Colonel Daniels the estate passed to Joseph Specht of St. Louis, who spent large sums upon it. From Mr. Specht’s heirs I acquired the property in 1907, and in January, 1913, I sold it to Louis Hertle of Chicago.
It was while living at Gunston Hall, where he died in 1911, that my brother Vaughan Kester wrote his well-known novel, The Prodigal Judge.
Although during the ownership of Colonel Daniels and also during Mr. Specht’s ownership much was done to repair and preserve the Hall, its real restoration was not undertaken until Mr. Hertle came into possession. Nothing could be more sympathetic, expert or intelligent than the work Mr. Hertle has carried on over a period of many years. Not only has he re-stored the Hall but, by some necromancy of appreciation and affection, he has preserved and enhanced the sentiment-the personality of Gunston Hall.
In the grounds Mr. Hertle had the wonderful old hedges of box, and the terraces-little else to begin with. The enchanting gardens are his work, and Mrs. Hertle’s.
To visit Gunston is an experience. I believe it was Lord Balfour, who had been a guest there, who said that seeing Gunston enabled him to understand the great planter-statesmen of our Revolutionary period as he had never understood them before.