DISCOVERING GEORGE MASON’S GARDEN
Archaeologists have been excavating Gunston Hall’s formal garden in an effort to discover what George
Mason’s garden may have looked like. Christine Jirikowic, Gunston Hall's Senior Archaeologist, 2001-2002, wrote this summary of significant findings from investigations in the garden at the end of the 2002 season. Myra Lau and Dave Shonyo of the Archaeology Department also contributed to this report.
Our approach to the eighteenth-century formal garden at Gunston Hall is to first consider it in the context of the surrounding landscape. The key question, then, concerns how the garden was integrated within a larger landscape that was partially natural and partially artificial. There are several key features of the eighteenth-century garden at Gunston Hall which served as a foundation for the garden’s design. Some of these features have endured, and their remnants are plainly visible today. Perhaps the most important feature of the garden is its infrastructure. As John Mason reported in his “Recollections,” the garden was created atop a man-made level platform that was “reduced from the natural irregularity of the Hill top” and that measured exactly one acre in area.
On its southern edge—and opposite the mansion—this platform terminated in a steep natural drop-off to the plain below. Even today this hill affords a pleasing but limited view of the surrounding woods, the Potomac River, and the Maryland shore. The vista would have been truly impressive when much of the woodland was cleared during the eighteenth century. The garden platform is still visible today as level ground that begins to slope off at approximately 100 feet east and west of the center axis of the garden. Although the treatment of the terraced hill may have changed over time, the garden platform and the crest of the hill constitute what may be considered two of the anchoring features of the infrastructure of the garden. The mansion house itself was the third principal element of the garden infrastructure. The garden is oriented as an extension of the house. Significantly, the portico that links the mansion to the garden follows the design of a garden pavilion, creating a transitional space that is both garden and house.
From the perspective of the house, the garden provided a portal through which to view Mason’s holdings, the river, and the world beyond. Conversely, from the perspective of the onlooker viewing Gunston Hall from the river, the garden would have focused the eye on the mansion.
We should recall that during Gunston Hall’s early decades the yard near the mansion was very likely completely devoid of mature trees, and the house itself would have presented the greatest relief on the landscape. The height of a mansion house, in this case enhanced by its location on high ground, was a commonly recognized expression of status, wealth, and power among the eighteenth-century Chesapeake gentry. The garden at Gunston Hall, as a foreground to the mansion, would have had the effect of magnifying the house, lending it greater grandeur and mass. Judging from an elaborate cherry tree-lined entrance road on the landside of the mansion, George Mason was no stranger to the principles of optics, perspective, proportion, and scale. It would not be surprising to find these same principles at play in the formal garden.
Constructed on top of this landscaped infrastructure were several key surface features. The central pathway in the garden still survives today, although its present appearance bears little resemblance to its eighteenth-century version. Today the path is a narrow, constricted gauntlet flanked by towering 250-year-old boxwoods. Archaeological testing on either side of the presentday path has shown that the original gravel path was 12 feet wide. This is the exact width of the central passage in the house and the portico leading to the garden, making the avenue a literal extension of the interior of the house.
This wide avenue was one of the principal focal points of the garden and would have served to link the mansion to the overlook and the world beyond. Of course, in the eighteenth century the boxwoods would have been much smaller than their present-day state. And whether planted as edging box or topiaries, their primary visual role would have been to add definition and emphasis to the width of the avenue. Testing also revealed evidence of planting beds on either side of this avenue between the portico and the boxwood tee, adding further emphasis to the pathway itself and its focus on the mansion. From the perspective of the mansion, 12 feet of open space terminating in an overlook of the river would have created a feeling of spaciousness, expansiveness, and a focus outward that is lacking entirely in the garden today.
John Mason described a “spacious walk running eastwardly and westwardly” on the brow of the hill at the south margin of the garden. Although today nothing remains of this path on the ground surface, archaeological testing revealed its buried remnants. This gravel path, constructed in a fashion similar to the central avenue, measured a full nine feet in width. These two paths, the central avenue and the walkway at the crest of the hill, reiterated and lent emphasis to the level platform and the sharp drop-off of the landscaped foundation of the garden. The mansion, the landscaped platform, and the drop-off together with the two principal gravel paths formed the structure around which the remainder of the garden was designed.
Other Gravel Features
Three additional gravel pathways have been documented archaeologically in the garden. First, the barest remnants of a path crossing the central avenue were found approximately halfway between the hilltop and the north boxwood tee. Not enough of this path remains to measure its width, but the existing evidence lends strong support to the proposition that the garden was divided into four parterres.
The two parterres closest to the mansion were slightly smaller than those more distant. This may have been another optical device intended to make the parterres appear equal in size when viewed from the mansion. The parterres are in keeping with John Mason’s memory that the garden was “laid out on a simple plan, in rectangular squares and gravel walks” Two additional gravel paths have been discovered. These two paths, both measuring nine feet in width, run parallel to each other north and south of the boxwood tee on either side of the central avenue. Twelve feet separate the two paths, and the original boxwoods appear to have been planted along the south edge of the northern path. Perhaps planting beds lay between the boxwoods and the northern edge of the south path.
Based on the ground surface evidence, the archaeological evidence, the historic documents, and our understanding of eighteenth-century gardens, we feel that we have recaptured the essence of George Mason’s garden. This garden was about viewing the world (or as much as was visible from the mansion) from the perspective of Gunston Hall and viewing Gunston Hall from a distance. Both views were mediated by the artificial landscape of the garden. In this sense, the garden functioned as a lens that imparted eminence to the mansion, on the one hand, and a sense of power or possession to the viewer of the outside world on the other.
The basic structure of the garden—that of the mansion, the level platform, and the overlook—still persists today, although the details of the garden no longer enhance the intended impact of that structure. The central avenue, the terrace walkway, and the garden perimeter—now all buried— were all features of the garden that elaborated upon this structural foundation. These features and the basic structure were the enduring elements of this garden. These were the elements that gave the garden aesthetic cohesion. And it were these elements that together made a statement about George Mason’s standing in the community.
Like that of other Chesapeake gentry plantations, the formal built environment of Gunston Hall, including the mansion, the landside entrance, and the garden, spoke of order, control, and prominence. Although this may seem an obvious interpretation of the eighteenth-century landscape, the present condition of the garden and the surrounding landscape seriously obscure this statement and make it extremely difficult to fully appreciate just how different the landscape would have looked when George Mason lived at Gunston Hall. The mature trees and boxwoods, for example, detract considerably from the views both of the mansion and of the overlook, counteracting the intended message of the formal garden. It may be that the overall appearance and effect of the eighteenth-century landscape would be quite strange to modern observers.
We have discovered evidence of some of the other features that may relate to the eighteenth-century garden, but their significance is as yet unclear. There is a great deal about the details of the garden that remains unknown.
A useful analogy may be to consider the difference between understanding the architectural shell of a building and having precise knowledge of its interior furnishings. We have a grasp on the garden’s architecture or its stylistic statement, but we still lack knowledge of the details of its furnishings, such as the secondary pathways and the arrangements and contents of planting beds. It is important to remember, however, that while the structure and overall style of a garden will likely endure for some time, the details will likely change on an annual, if not seasonal, basis. The furnishings evolve while the architecture may remain relatively unchanged. While over time we may discover more about the details of the garden, this knowledge will not significantly alter our understanding of the intended impact of the landscape at Gunston Hall.