After being graciously escorted throughout the house by the owners, we all agreed that Huntley was, without question, one of Virginia's undiscovered architectural treasures. - Calder Loth, Architectural Historian , Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, Preface to “A Mason Family Country House,” by Tony P. Wrenn
In the southeastern part of Fairfax County, about three miles south of Old Town Alexandria, “Hybla Valley” spreads out between Groveton, a neighborhood situated along one of the highest points in the county, and Little Hunting Creek, a Potomac River tributary that leads to Mount Vernon. A dozen or so suburban neighborhoods fills the census-designated area, known better for the seemingly endless string of stoplights and shopping plazas situated along the traffic-choked Richmond Highway.
200 years ago, some of this land was a 1,000-acre farm owned by Thomson Francis Mason (1785-1838), a grandson of George Mason, who had purchased the large parcel from George Washington in 1757. A lawyer and prominent citizen who worked and lived in Alexandria, Thomson F. Mason owned “Huntley,” a Federal-style villa that looked down on the fertile valley below. Perched on top a steep terraced hill, Huntley still stands, rubbing shoulders with Groveton, Huntley Meadows Park and South Kings Highway.
Much like the residential palaces the wealthy built in Northwest D.C. to escape the noise of city life and the sweltering summer heat, so too did Mason’s two-story mansion benefit from its lofty heights and distance from the busy seaport city of Alexandria. Typical of farms in those days, an overseer and slave labor raised corn, rye and wheat.
From 1940 to 1960, Fairfax County exploded in population, going from 40,000 to 275,000. “Historic Huntley” survived the growth and serves as a rare reminder of a time when Virginia squires with large families owned such awe-inspiring properties. Shuttered for years for renovations, a refurbished Huntley (6918 Harrison Lane) and its handful of outbuildings opened to the public this past spring. A tenant house, “Necessary,” and outbuilding are part of the property. Guided tours are available on Saturdays, and specific events are occasionally held.
Like a time-worn epitaph, the life of Thomson Francis Mason has faded into obscurity. He was born in Gunston Hall, an estate near Mount Vernon where his grandfather penned declarations of rights for the common man and entertained George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Mason had seven siblings, including Richard Chichester (1793-1869) who practiced medicine in Alexandria and lived at Oakley Manor (near South Kings Highway and Telegraph Road, burned down during Civil War), located about a miles south of Huntley.
Mason was raised in Hollin Hall, another Mason property (burned down in 1919) that stood near what is now the Fairfax County Regional Library. His father, Thomson Mason (1759-1820) achieved the rank of General during the American Revolution, and held an interest in helping banks and transportation companies.
After graduating from Princeton in 1807, the young Mason returned to Alexandria to practice law. He served as Mayor of the City (1827-1830 and 1835-1837) and as a member of the Common Council. Unlike his grandfather, who did not have the warmest of relationships with the city, Mason was a favorite son in the bustling seaport city. The respected lawyer also lent his leadership to the Little River Turnpike and Alexandria Canal companies. In the 1820s, when Alexandrians pined for retrocession from the District of Columbia, Mason provided legal counsel and assistance.
In 1817, Mason married Elizabeth C. Price of Leesburg. The couple soon began building Huntley, which was completed around 1825. Geoffrey Cohrs, the chief docent at the house said it is unknown how much they used the home (probably named after a manor in Scotland). He noted that in her correspondence, Mrs. Mason expressed a lack of fondness for Huntley. Harness racing might have lured her husband for occasional forays to the countryside.
The family (he and “Betsy” had eleven children) lived primarily at “Colross” in Alexandria, on the northwest corner of N. Henry and Oronoco (“The Monarch”). The brick mansion was one of the most sought after pieces of real estate in the area. The Masons purchased the home and grounds in the 1830s. They added rooms and made notable improvements. When Mason passed away in 1838, he was buried in a tomb behind the mansion. Residents of Old Town will recall Andy’s Carwash located there, before it was demolished and gave way to the Monarch Apartments and small retail.
Mason resided at three other Alexandria addresses, each located in what is now the historic district of Old Town. Researchers have noted that information is sketchy, but he apparently resided as a bachelor at 501 Cameron around 1816, bought 115 S. St. Asaph in 1832, and purchased 609 Oronoco in 1835.
The latter home is the most famous. His next-door neighbor was Robert E. Lee. Across the street (Lee-Fendall House), Mason had the opportunity to wave to many of the Lee family members who would have spoken highly of Robert’s late father, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Edmund Lee, Robert’s uncle, and Mayor of Alexandria (1815-1818) lived catty-corner to the Masons at 428 Washington Street. Before Mason’s time, George Washington had stayed periodically at his townhouse, a few doors down at 518 Cameron. Lord Fairfax (1762-1846) also lived on Cameron Street.
Thomson Francis Mason passed away on December 21, 1838. His remains were removed from the Colross graveyard and reinterred at Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery on Wilkes Street in the southwest corner of Old Town Alexandria. His life is gone, but Mason left us his legacy as an outstanding citizen, and Historic Huntley, still overlooking the valley down below.
Note: Many thanks to Mark Zoeter at the Alexandria Library, Special Collections Section, and Geoffery Cohrs at Historic Huntley for their time and assistance.
Historic Huntley Website
“A Mason Family Country House,” by Tony P. Wrenn (e book at Gutenberg)
Placards at Huntley
Thomson Francis Mason papers, Alexandria Library, Special Collections
National Register for Historic Places, Nomination Form, 1972
"A Seaport Saga," by William Francis Smith and T. Michael Miller
"The History of Old Alexandria Virginia," Mary G. Powell
"Hidden History of Alexandria," Michael Lee Pope
"Walking with Washington," Robert L. Madison