In February, David L. Reese, the new director of Gunston Hall Plantation, left behind the frenetic pace of New York politics for the bucolic woods of Mason Neck.
Reese, 50, ended 15 years as curator of the mayoral mansion in New York last year, after the city's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, decided to turn historic Gracie Mansion into a city conference center and laid off 16 of its employees, including Reese.
During a recent tour, Reese said he found Gunston Hall a welcoming refuge when he arrived Feb. 1. The historic landmark was the home of George Mason, the Colonial patriot who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the precursor to the nation's Bill of Rights. It sits on a bluff on 550 acres overlooking the Potomac River about 20 miles south of Washington.
"It's a peaceful setting," Reese said, as a rooster crowed nearby. "Once you turn off Route 1, you're in a different world."
Reese has been an admirer of Gunston Hall since he was 16, when he first saw its graceful columns and unusual polygonal porch in the pages of an architecture history book and begged his parents to allow him to visit. On that first trip, Reese said, "I was enchanted."
Gunston Hall is owned by the state of Virginia and governed by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, a historic preservation organization.
Colonial Dames members were impressed by Reese's longtime affinity for Gunston Hall, according to Laura Johnson of Millville, N.J., who serves on the group's Board of Regents. Reese has ties to the area, having earned three degrees from the University of Virginia, including a master's degree in architectural history.
Johnson said that the board members hope Reese can raise the profile of the historic landmark, which often is overlooked by tourists visiting Mount Vernon and Monticello, the famous homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Interest in George Mason grew last year when a memorial to the writer and thinker was dedicated on the National Mall, but his home attracts just 45,000 visitors a year.
"We were hoping to find someone with experience managing historic properties who would be our ambassador and go out and put Gunston Hall on the map," Johnson said. "It needs to be better known nationally."
After 15 years as curator of Gracie Mansion, the 204-year-old Federal-style estate that has been home to the city's mayors since 1942, Reese was well used to the national spotlight. Over the years, he gave a tour to Dolly Parton, chatted with Henry Kissinger and had drinks with Placido Domingo.
Then, two years ago, the mansion became an element in the court battle between then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his estranged spouse, Donna Hanover. The couple had lived in Gracie Mansion with their two children even after Giuliani acknowledged his relationship with another woman. In 2001, Hanover asked a Manhattan judge to bar Giuliani's girlfriend from the premises. She was criticized for staying in the mansion after breaking up with her husband.
Reese said he did not want to discuss the couple's private lives, but he did say those months were awkward.
Subsequently, Bloomberg's administration oversaw a $7 million renovation completed last year.
"Gracie Mansion is a stressful place. I survived 15 years and four mayors," Reese said. He still considers Hanover a friend.
"He's quite wonderful," Hanover said of Reese. "He can handle the most elegant of circumstances, but when the fuses blow, he knows what to do."
Over the next few months, Reese will oversee construction of a $2 million office and library on the plantation and restoration of historic details on the grounds, including rows of the cherry trees that Mason favored.
As he gave a visitor a tour, Reese showed off the boxwood bushes leading to the home's river overlook. He said that Mason, despite his public role, preferred to stay home, reading, writing and overseeing the planting of tobacco and wheat on his farm. Mason often paced the garden for inspiration, Reese said.
"These boxwoods were planted by George Mason," he said, strolling through a long row of pruned bushes, the heart of the formal garden. "They're real survivors," he said, gesturing to the gnarled roots. "I respect survivors. Because I'm one."