ALEXANDRIA, VA-Seeking relief from Northern Virginia’s sweltering summer is not new. Around 1817, Alexandria’s five-time mayor, Thomson Francis Mason, grandson of Gunston Hall’s George Mason IV, acquired Hunting Creek Farm, three miles south of the city in today’s Fairfax County. The property was a portion of the original Gunston Hall estate. In 1820, Mason began building Huntley, a 15-room villa atop a breezy hill overlooking Hybla Valley and the Potomac River.
Huntley was never Mason’s primary residence and exactly what he and others did there is somewhat a mystery, but local historians believe that the Masons retreated to their country house to wind down from the bustling Port City of 10,000, to bolster their health with the cool breezes, soak up the view, and entertain guests.
Modeled after the homes of English landed gentry and sited to overlook his 800-plus acres, Mason likely relished impressing people with his holdings. From the south-facing porch, Thomson, his wife Betsey, and their visitors could watch slave and tenant laborers toil over oats, wheat, corn, hay, clover, and other crops in the fields below. They could gossip about the Washingtons and other neighbors as they monitored smoke rising from Mount Vernon’s chimneys, and they could see ship masts on the Potomac River.
What went on at their rural retreat has left many unanswered questions. Was it a secluded getaway? A hunting lodge? A gentlemen’s hideaway? A social salon? There are no records of parties at Huntley.
· The Masons had a 12-to-15-foot deep ice well that held 30 tons. Why was it so large?
· Why do most main floor rooms open to the outside? For ventilation? For private comings and goings?
· Who designed Huntley?
· Builders constructed the two wings before building the middle. Why?
· The kitchen was an outbuilding—but where was it?
· The house appears to have two fronts. Why?
· The outhouse, then dubbed the “necessary,” had four holes. Why was it so unusually large by the standards of the day?
Today, experts have reversed 200 years of Huntley alterations to represent the mansion of Mason’s day. Despite questions without answers, the restored buildings and landscape give an idea of 19th-century Virginia plantation life, social customs, and farming, which in this case was fueled by the unpaid work of some 85 enslaved persons.
“Huntley reminds us that things have not always been as they are today,” says Todi Carnes, president of the Friends of Historic Huntley. “It provides a sense of identity through history and affords a common point around which people can come together to celebrate their shared roots and the lessons of history as represented by this architecturally significant, compact, federal-period compound of structures.”
Built between 1825 and 1830, Huntley has an “H” design with flanking wings of two rooms and a central room providing cross-ventilation. It also incorporates Palladian features, popular for country villas at that time and thought to embody calm and harmony. At 1,400 square feet, Huntley has 10 to 15 rooms, depending on how you count.
“Fairfax County purchased Historic Huntley because it is a significant historic site that has been listed on the National Register since 1972,” explains Cheryl Repetti, Historical Interpreter and Site Coordinator. “It is noteworthy for its architecture and its association with the Mason family.”
Another mystery is who was Huntley’s designer or architect? “We don’t know,” says Repetti. Some suggest that Benjamin Latrobe or George Hadfield may have planned it, but there is no record that they worked for Thomson Mason. Perhaps Mason designed it, using architectural pattern books. After his death, Betsey said that she had to carry out his “designs” for Colross, their home on Oronoco Street in Alexandria.
More mysteries: Why did builders constructed the two wings before building the middle? Repetti speculates that it may have been easier for unskilled masons to build two rectangles and then connect them at the middle, rather than constructing the H-shape of the building as a whole, but there are no surviving letters or work orders describing the process.
Huntley’s exterior bricks are painted creamy yellow, a color popular in its day, and bound together by lime mortar made on site, partly with oyster shells. The house has original wide, pine-board floors sawed by hand and of varying widths. There are eight fireplaces and hand-hewn woodworking around doors.
In exposed spaces in one room, visitors can study details of the home’s construction, such as the insides of interior walls, from the first crude layer to the smoother, finished outer wall. Builders made plaster from limestone, sand, water and hair from hogs and cattle. Wide chestnut board sheathing can be viewed in the ceiling.
The complex appears to have been designed as a whole, with dependencies situated symmetrically on both sides. Two outbuildings still exist. A below-grade cellar in one building was used to store perishable food. Below it is the huge ice well, shaped with a curved dome, and most likely dug by hand by slaves.
“Ice wells were all the rage,” says Repetti, “George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had one.” The Masons tried to store enough ice, packed in sawdust, to last the summer. In the late 19th and early 20th century, elites used ice to prevent fresh meat from spoiling and it was a novelty to serve cool drinks and ice cream to summer guests.
Like other proper mansions of its day, Huntley had a “necessary,” a four-holer in a brick outbuilding. A four-hole privy was large by the standards of the time and for a 19th century toilet, the building has a lot of detail work. Perhaps it was large to accommodate the Masons 10 children and prettied up for anticipated guests.
After the Masons
Thomson Mason died in 1838. To settle family debts, his heirs auctioned the property in 1862 to Dr. Benjamin King. When the Civil War began, the oldest son, Arthur Pendleton Mason, joined the Confederate Army but their tenant, George Johnson, assisted Union troops and Dr. King served the North. From December 1861 to March 1862, Union soldiers’ winter quarters were scattered across Huntley’s hillside, including the Second, Third, and Fifth Michigan and 37th New York infantries. They named it Camp Michigan.
In 1871, Albert Harrison took possession of the mansion and its supporting structures while Nathan W. Pierson acquired the rest of the property. Following his death in 1911, Harrison’s heirs owned Huntley until the 1930s.
At this point, ownership changed several times and the mansion suffered considerable vandalism. In 1946, Huntley was sold to August and Eleanor Nagel, who commissioned Arlington architect Edward M. Pitt to make drawings of the mansion. Three years later, they sold to the Amlong family, the last residents at Huntley.
Twenty Dogged Years
Huntley was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and the Fairfax County Park Authority acquired the property in 1989, but it sat vacant for many years. The National Park Service’s “Save America’s Treasures” program awarded the county a $100,000 grant and taxpayers approved two park bonds providing $3 million.
Through 20 years of determined research and persistence, due in part to the Friends of Historic Huntley, FCPA saved and restored Historic Huntley. “People should care about Huntley because it has borne witness and is a monument to the history of Fairfax County,” says Carne. In addition to the National Register of Historic Places, Huntley is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the Fairfax County Inventory of Historic Sites.
So an imposing 19th century country villa with a paved parking lot sits on a hilltop looking incongruous in 21st century suburbia, next to townhouses and a church just off frenetic, car-choked U.S. 1, keeping its secrets, awaiting the unraveling of its many mysteries.
Grounds are open dawn to dusk from March through November with Saturday tours inside and outside at 10:30 a.m. and 12 noon until the end of October. Buildings are open for scheduled programs. Limited rentals are available for small, site-appropriate gatherings.