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While the rows of magnolias and cedars flanking the road to the mansion are dramatic today, the view was even more so in Ann and George Mason’s day. Their son John later described his father’s excitement at asking his guests to stand on the porch and look down the road, counting the number of trees. After the guest inevitably replied, “four,” the delighted Mr. Mason took them to the side and revealed there were actually two hundred cherry trees, stretching into the distance in four perfectly straight lines pointed like a wedge at the mansion.
The visual trick of the cherry tree allée served as a dramatic example of Mr. Mason’s familiarity with Enlightenment ideals and mastery over his landscape. Just as books inspired George Mason’s thinking on government, corruption, and individual rights, a published text inspired his landscape design. The idea for using perspective to create such an illusion was printed in an Italian book on making theater sets.
In fact, his feat of landscape engineering demonstrated that Mr. Mason was a man worth taking seriously. In the 18th century, Europeans assumed that people who looked grand and had grand homes also had grand ideas.
The allée also showed the Masons had great wealth, mostly invested in land and people. Consider the incredible amount of enslaved labor, dozens of people and hundreds of hours it took to plot out, raise the saplings, dig, and plant so many trees to convey these big ideas. Enslaved workers completely transformed the landscape at Gunston Hall to make George Mason’s vision come to life.