Asked to design the George Mason National Memorial in Washington, D.C., architect Faye Harwell had one question: Who the heck is George Mason? “I didn’t know anything about him,” she says.
Now that the memorial, dedicated April 9, has taken its place on the National Mall, historians hope people will finally get to know Mason, one of the most influential—but least-known—Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson drew on Mason’s 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. And as one of Virginia’s delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, Mason insisted on protecting individual freedoms, which later led to the addition of the Bill of Rights.
Weary of public life, Mason soon retired to Gunston Hall, his tobacco-and-wheat plantation in Mason Neck, Va., with second wife Sarah and his nine children. “He didn’t want to be father of his country,” says Thomas Lainhoff, director of Gunston Hall, where Mason, who died in 1792 at age 66, is buried. “He just wanted to be father of his family.”
Which is why Bethesda, Md., artist Wendy Ross, 52, who created the half-ton bronze sculpture, feels the $2.1 million memorial (Sculpture magazine editor Glenn Harper calls it “very intimate, inviting”) is perfect for the down-to-earth Mason. “The Lincoln and Jefferson memorials are grand and heroic, but they’re really not accessible,” says Ross. Adds Harwell, 55, who created the garden and quotation wall: “I hope people will say, ‘It’s just right.’ ”