The Fairfax County Park Authority is taking part in the National Park Service’s (NPS) Preservation 50 celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the nation’s protection of America’s historic places by posting a series of blogs about county historic places on park land. The National Register of Historic Places, a part of NPS, was established in 1966. This series is based on information that appears in each site’s nomination to the National Register. The nomination forms give us a chance to look back and learn why the sites were considered to be significant historic places.
It was next door to George Washington’s home.
Land adjacent to Mount Vernon belonged to the Mason family, and there is a house overlooking much of that land. It was built for Thomson Francis Mason, a grandson of George Mason, who drafted the Constitution of Virginia and its Declaration of Rights. Many of George Mason’s words appear in the U-S Bill of Rights that Congress passed 15 years later.
The land owned by George Mason was flat, suitable for farming. His grandson expanded the family’s holdings in 1820 by acquiring the nearby hill that provided an expansive view, and he built a house there because, in the words of author Dorothy Troth Muir, “Virginia gentlemen built their homes on top of hills.”
“When George Washington was in residence at Mount Vernon, he would take regular rides up through his Dogue Run Farm (part of which is now Huntley Meadows Park),” said Huntley Meadows History Interpreter Cheryl-Ann Repetti. “Imagining him riding through the woodlands and fields that once extended all the way down to Mount Vernon is neat.” The house on the hill had a view overlooking it all.
The house is called Huntley, probably named after a family ancestral home in Scotland called “Huntly,” without the E. The Mason home in Alexandria, the one with the E, was built around 1820 – tax records indicate 1825 — and was nominated for a place in the National Register of Historic Places in March 1972. This blog is based on that nomination, and it gives us a chance to look back and learn why the site was considered in the first place to be a significant historic place.
At the time of the nomination, Historic Huntley was a private residence owned by Col. and Mrs. Ransom G. Amlong. It had undergone a Historic American Building Survey in 1969 and was considered significant because of its Early Federal Period architecture and its connection to American history.
Thomson Francis Mason was born at Gunston Hall in 1785 and grew up at Hollin Hall, the home built by his father. He and his family owned several houses, and Huntley was a secondary house for him. Huntley was on a productive farm, and the site included a tenant house (which subsequent research suggests was built in 1827, probably for the overseer), an ice house, a springhouse, a root cellar and a necessary.
The nomination form says the house called Huntley “was constructed with a refinement and individuality very much in keeping with the Mason family’s remarkable building tradition.” There are indications that a trained architect was involved in the home’s design, notably because of its placement on the hill. It sits near the top of a hill with a view of several miles over the Hybla Valley and on to the Potomac River. The home is built not at the very top of the hill, but into the hillside. A full basement was constructed under the structure, which compensated for the degree of slant on the hillside, and all of the parts of the building work together quite well. The nomination points out that outside roof and pavilion designs, as well as the style of the interior rooms, reflect a sophistication and knowledge of advanced early 19th century architecture. Author Tony P. Wrenn argues that Huntley’s design is similar to designs of George Hadfield, a significant architect of the day. Hadfield served as superintendent of the Capitol and helped design Washington City Hall and Arlington House, the one-time home of Robert E. Lee that stands as a central point in Arlington National Cemetery.
Mason began building Huntley a few years after marrying Elizabeth C. Price of Leesburg in 1817. He was a prominent lawyer and, in the 1820s, played a key part in the efforts that led to the separation of Alexandria from the District of Columbia. He later served two terms as Alexandria’s mayor.
Upon his death in 1839, Huntley passed to Mason’s widow who kept it for the next 20 years before it was transferred to two of Mason’s sons as security on a debt to a family friend. In 1868, Albert W. Harrison shared partial title to the house, and by 1871 he was listed as the farm’s sole owner. The National Register nomination form notes that a correspondent for the Syracuse Journal in 1875 wrote, “The house stands boldly on a hill spur, looking over broad acres of corn, rye, wheat, oats and fertile meadow—a site to see. Beyond, in plain vision, rolls the Potomac.” Harrison died in 1911, and the property passed to his heirs. Historic Huntley today is located on Harrison Lane, just outside Huntley Meadows Park.
Wrenn, the author, wrote of Huntley: “It survives as a notable example of early nineteenth century architecture; as an example of a farm or country house of an early nineteenth century city dweller; as a Mason family house and as part of a well sited and relatively complete complex. When considered together, these factors make Huntley an important architectural landmark.”
Historic Huntley is located at 6918 Harrison Lane in Alexandria. More information is on the Historic Huntley website.
As part of Preservation 50, visitors to the Fairfax County Government Center at 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax can see an exhibit case in the building’s lobby. The exhibit, a partnership of the Fairfax County Park Authority and the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning (DPZ), showcases some of the 59 county properties and districts that are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Park Authority and DPZ host two symposia this year on the impact of the National Historic Preservation Act on Fairfax County. The first, “Setting the Stage for Local Preservation,” will bring together historic preservation professionals who have played roles in the National Historic Preservation Act on a federal and/or state level. It will be held on April 16, 2016, at the James Lee Center, 2855 Annandale Road in Falls Church, Va. The second symposium will explore grassroots results of how the Act has affected local historic preservation. The date and place of that fall symposium are not yet confirmed.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.