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Mason's Retreat

Open house will offer a look inside.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the part of Fairfax County known as Alexandria, a 19th century house sits atop a steep hill with a commanding view of Hybla Valley. The sweet smell of spring is redolent in the air and the semi-circular terraced garden —now overgrown with wild buttercup flowers — invites visitors from a suburban area of Fairfax County. The old house has been boarded up since being purchased by the Fairfax County Park Authority in 1989. But with the help of Fairfax County and the Friends of Historic Huntley, the house will one day be returned to its original grandeur.

On Sunday May 15, the Friends of Historic Huntley will hold an open house, where visitors can tour the house and its outbuildings, learn about 200 years of local history and enjoy a puppet show starring Sir James.

"Buildings do talk," said Huntley Meadows Park site manager Carolyn Gamble. "When the Fairfax County Park Authority started investigating it, this house had a lot to say."

With $1 million from the 1998 Fairfax County Park Bond allocated to a restoration project, a team of archeologists and architects descended upon the property to investigate its history. But the evidence offered more questions than answers. For example, the icehouse on the property is too large to suit the needs of a family. Why was it built? Does its presence there signify that the house was used for large gatherings? Did Huntley act as a tavern in the woods?

"The wings of the house were built first," said Gamble. "The central part of the house was built after the two adjoining wings, and we're not really sure why."

<b>THE HOME MAY</b> have been used as a summer vacation home by Thomson Mason, a grandson of George Mason. He served on the town council in Alexandria and his involvement in local politics included five terms as mayor and three terms as justice of the peace. An 1807 graduate of Princeton, Mason was a lawyer by profession. He was also a strong advocate in the fight to separate Alexandria from the District of Columbia. Six months before his death in 1838, he was named as the first judge of the new Criminal Court in the District of Columbia. Although Mason's primary residence was on Orinoco Street — a house known as Colross — Huntley was a second residence where he could escape the hot summer days in Old Town.

Huntley's hilltop location takes advantage of cooling breezes and its subterranean icehouse — a brick dome under the ground — is naturally chilly. The terraced gardens must have offered a picturesque environment to spend a warm summer day.

No one is certain how Huntley was used. Mason acquired the property circa 1825. But the architectural evidence suggests that part of the house may have been built before he acquired the property. The surrounding farmland used to grow corn, rye, wheat and oats on the land which is now Huntley Meadows Park. Personal property tax records indicate that Mason owned 20 slaves who worked at Huntley.

<b>"WE HAVE</b> a caretaker who lives in the tenant house," said Gamble. "It's great that he can keep an eye on the property at all times because it has been vandalized in the past."

Years ago, thieves absconded with one of the 19th-century mantelpieces, but site plans have worked around the loss.

"We're not going to furnish the house," said Gamble. "The building itself will be the exhibit."

"Although the Fairfax County Park Authority has funds to stabilize and restore the outward appearance of the buildings, an additional $2 million is needed to complete its site plan, which will include a classroom in the basement that can be used for elementary, secondary and college students.

"Right now, we are in the permitting process," said Michael Rierson, project manager for construction at Huntley. "Once we receive the permits, we can go out and bid. That will take about 90 days."

Rierson estimates that construction on the site will begin sometime in the fall of 2005.

"Everybody has been looking forward to getting this house into a preservation mode," he said. "We're not going to be able to complete the entire project with the funding we now have, so we're going to have to do the project in phases. It's sort of the triage approach."

"When construction begins later this year, the fence that surrounds the property — a barrier to those who are curious about the historic building — will be torn down.

"A lot of people will be very happy when that fence comes down," said Gamble. "The Friends of Historic Huntley have been very patient, and many of them have been waiting since 1989 for this house to be restored to its original grandeur."