When I was a young boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia, two of the things I loved most were baseball and history.
I loved watching my Phillies on TV, scouring packs of baseball cards for Phillies players, and reading box scores every morning in the newspaper. The players were my heroes and all of these activities allowed me to connect with my team in ways there were personal, but also communal because my family, friends, and neighbors also loved the Phillies.
The best part of this shared, yet personal experience was going to Veterans Stadium to see a game. I will never forget the feeling of the summer sun, the sight of the green Astroturf and the brown base paths, the smell of hot dogs, and the sounds of the organ, conversations among fans, and the ball either hitting a bat or pounding a glove. It was magical as a child and is still magical for me as an adult, particularly now that I get to take my two daughters to the ballpark and share my love of baseball with each of them.
My second, but certainly equal love was history. In this case my heroes were trappers and fur traders of the west, explorers of the oceans and continents, Civil War generals, and the founders of our nation. I clearly remember going to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Franklin Court in Philadelphia, multiple battlefields throughout Maryland and Virginia, and countless museums and historic sites up and down the East Coast. What could be more fun!
I also read voraciously and enjoyed the complete set of the old Landmark Books series that covered a full range of fascinating historical topics. As with baseball, these activities were deeply personal, but also communal because I experienced all of these amazing places with my family, and I remember this time as a family as much as I remember the exhibits and programs at the specific sites. Even the books had a communal element because I could not wait to share what I had read with anyone willing to listen, even if it was just the family cat.
The difference between my love of baseball and my love of history, however, was that the baseball players and the action on the field was live and in the present. My love of history and my ability to connect with my heroes of the past, therefore, relied on places like museums and historic sites, and, it depended on books.
Fast forward to July 8, 2013. It is my first day on the job as Executive Director of Gunston Hall. I had been to Gunston Hall on several occasions before this day, but this day was different and it is also one I will never forget.
Turning off Gunston Road, I began driving up the entrance road. The surrounding forest is almost mystical. I turn off NPR and even though it is hot, I roll down the windows of my truck. I even stop for a minute. I hear an assortment of noises—birds, squirrels rustling on the forest floor, a slight breeze barely moving the canopy above.
I continue driving and emerge from the forest. Before me, on either side, lay vast fields of green. Several families of deer quietly enjoy breakfast, while also perking up at my presence.
As I slowly continue, driving over a slight crest, the very top of the mansion appears followed by a full view of this awe inspiring structure. The mansion is framed by towering cedars and magnolias, which serve to enhance the mansion’s majesty and also draw you closer both physically and emotionally.
Now I can literally feel the power and the presence of this place. It is indescribable yet you can’t help but try because the power is so strong and so special.
After parking, I walk towards the mansion, drawn by the power of the place to get closer, to touch the brick, and I ascend the steps to the porches. I don’t yet have keys, so after enjoying this vantage point, I walk around the mansion, meander through the boxwood gardens as I have read George Mason loved to do, and soak up the breath taking view of the river and forests below the ridge.
Later in the day, I go inside the mansion and then a new feeling overwhelms me. This place, this amazing place, is about more than a defining landscape, beautiful views, and an awe-inspiring structure. Once inside, despite the obvious grandeur of the architecture and craftsmanship, I am reminded that this place is about and defined by people, and that this place’s true power is derived through personal and communal connections with people.
And connections with stories.
Inside the Little Parlor as I look at the original furnishings I am awed by a connection to the place where Mason ran a vibrant plantation, where family occasionally dined, and perhaps most inspiring, the place where Mason contemplated and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Upstairs, I can almost hear the same sounds of my household, children getting ready for the day, playing, and preparing for bed. Back outside in the kitchen yard, I am confronted with the reality of slavery. I can feel the power associated with the toil of work by enslaved peoples. I feel the challenging irony of a place where visionary statements of freedom and equality were developed and expressed, but also a place that was home for close to 100 slaves.
In thinking more about these feelings, I begin to comprehend why I love Gunston Hall. First, this place is uniquely capable, at least for me, of re-connecting me with my childhood love of history and of reminding me, on a minute-by-minute basis, why I love history and why I am blessed to work as a museum professional.
But perhaps most importantly, as I watch guests—some families, some individuals, and some groups of friends—walk by my office window on their way to the mansion, I love Gunston Hall because of its diverse and compelling humanity. This humanity is defined by stories of freedom and slavery, education and learning, family and community, citizenship and patriotism, entrepreneurialism and innovation, and by preservation and stewardship. This humanity, and Gunston Hall, is also defined by passion and love. This is truly why the spirit and feel of this place is so powerful and so compelling.
These personal and communal connections, powerful feelings, and compelling human stories are why I love Gunston Hall–and why historic houses and sites remain so relevant and important today. As you think about your love of such places, I would love to hear your stories of your favorite place!
— Scott M. Stroh, Executive Director, Gunston Hall