Gunston Hall Interim Director Mark Whatford is working hard to improve communications with the Board of Regents, brainstorming over ideas for events and more community involvement, and having fun while doing it. For the first time in years, some say, there's a sense of optimism around Lorton's historic plantation.
"I'm having a hell of a good time right now," said Whatford, who is also Gunston Hall's librarian, archivist and IT specialist. Whatford now works about 80 hours a week for his two full-time jobs.
On Monday night, 's Board of Visitors presented and approved their annual report for 2011. The 20-page document — unveiled at a public hearing — is now on its way to the Governor's office. It makes a number of recommendations and acknowledges the recent firing of Gunston Hall Director , his temporary replacement and the growing relationship between the Hall's overseers and lawmakers in Richmond.
"The Board of Regents is taking important steps to support the mission and vision of Gunston Hall by recruiting new leadership," said Tim Sargeant, a member of the three-person Board of Visitors, at the meeting. "Our report includes several recommendations that can complement and support the Regents' initiatives."
Gunston Hall is owned by the Commonwealth and is run by a Board of Regents (chosen from The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America). The Board of Visitors acts in an advisory capacity with the Regents, and, through the annual report, as a state watchdog of plantation management.
Reese, who was appointed to the position in 2003 by then-Gov. Mark Warner, was let go after a meeting of the Regents on April 16. He was harshly criticized for firing Gunston Hall's longtime education director last year, cutting back the grounds and eliminating educational events and programs.
The Regents have reportedly begun looking for a full-time director and are not operating on a timeline.
"I want more people to know about Gunston Hall," said Whatford. "I'd like to use the grounds as a venue for more events and am looking for suggestions. We're taking every phone call and we're more than happy to take any advice."
The Gunston Hall Board of Visitors Report
Since Reese's ouster, "Already, there has been increased communication with the Office of the [Virginia] Secretary of Education, the Board of Visitors and the Regents," according to the report. "We anticipate additional initiatives by the Regents to improve communication with stakeholders and provide new focus to the education mission while planning for the next generation of visitors to Gunston Hall."
Funding reductions over the past few years by the Commonwealth increase challenges for the historic site, especially with a steady decline in visits by the public over the last decade.
Gunston Hall FundingFiscal Year Virginia General Fund Allocation Admission Receipts
Capital/Maintenance ExpendituresPrivate Income 2006-07 $644,466 $99,745 $11,148 $542,362 2007-08 $740,001 $111,506 $84,209 $521,053 2008-09 $662,951 $131,545 $40,701 $608,231 2009-10 $582,478 $123,874 $23,145 $699,873 2010-2011 $508,882 $151,299 $66,355 $1,156,501
Gunston Hall Attendance:
1990:47,946 Visitors 2000: 40,198 Visitors FY 2010-11 25,060 Visitors
A Fresh Start
Interim Director Whatford said he speaks with the Regents board members on a daily basis. "They've asked me to take over and investigate ideas to boost outreach at Gunston Hall and keep things moving forward," he said. "We've got to broaden our reach. It would be wise to line up corporate sponsors like they have at Mount Vernon."
A New York native, Whatford, 57, lives in the Alexandria portion of Fairfax County. He received his bachelor's degree in Archaeology from the State University of New York-Buffalo, and his master's degree in Library Science at the Pratt Institute. Before starting at Gunston Hall in 2010, he worked at Phillip Morris for 14 years as the library archivist, chair of the Manuscript Review Board and website manager.
"I've got to thank the Regents for having the confidence in me to step up to be the director, and I'm having a lot of fun," said Whatford, who, as the Gunston Hall archivist found three previously unknown letters from George Washington and two unseen letters by George Mason.
Specifically, the report released Monday night:
- Recommends that Gunston Hall employees seek official state channels for potential grievance issues with coworkers and managers
- Asks that the new director take conflict management and grievance training, and that he/she will receive "360-degree" evaluations
- Calls for the creation of an Education Advisory Committee to oversee the program's mission and progress. The Committee would be comprised of representatives of the Board of Regents, the State Secretary of Education, the newly hired Director of Educational Programming, an archeologist and officials from local middle and high schools
- Supports the replacement of the Board of Advisors with a General Advisory Committee, which would include representation by a marketing or communications specialist
- Recommends coordination between the Commonwealth and the Regents in their respective long-range planning documents for the plantation
- Recommends communications initiatives, like hiring a marketing staffer, the online publication of a periodic newsletter and an increased social media presence
- Asks for a professional marketing study to improve the branding of Gunston Hall and for outlined visitation goals
General Assemby Actions
During this year's General Assembly session, Gunston Hall First Regent Wylie Raab made a number of concessions in a letter to the Virginia Secretary of Education, including filling the vacant education coordinator position.
Also in the letter:
- A staffer on behalf of the Education Secretary would be invited to meetings with the Board of Regents
- Input from the Secretary's office will be welcomed in the annual review of the director.
Del. Dave Albo (R-42) and Sen. Toddy Puller (D-36) introduced bills in this year's session to reconfigure the scope of power possessed by the Board of Regents. Albo retracted his bill when, as a conciliatory effort, the Regents agreed to refill the vacant education coordinator position.
"The Board of Regents have proven that they want to work with the community," Albo said in a previous interview with Patch. "I'm not celebrating that Reese is gone. He's really good at preserving antiquities; he did that very well. He just didn't get along with the neighborhood too well, and you certainly need those skills for that job."
The education coordinator position will not be filled until a new director is hired.
Expansions on the Horizon
"We're also going to be expanding the visitor's center by next spring and there are some beautiful items in the collection like Mason family portraits, furniture and other objects that we should showcase," said Whatford. "I'd also like to eventually see more information regarding the Mason slaves and we have names and information on how they played a role at Gunston Hall."
Many are elated over recent developments. "We're just so excited over the turn of events here," said Jim Dillard, a former Virginia state delegate and member of the Gunston Hall Board of Advisors. "We just see this now as a whole new beginning and we're happy that the Board of Visitors is playing a major role and will continue to protect the interests of the state."
Susan Blankenship is the development program coordinator at Gunston Hall. "We feel like we're more a part of the decision-making process," she said. "We have staff meetings and he (Whatford) visits us to talk and he knows and cares about what's going on. We do feel heard. It's a very positive time here and we're still restructuring."
Whatford wants to shift the closing hours of the grounds during the spring and summer from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. "And we want it to be a soft closing. We're not going to kick you out if you're finishing up a picnic with your family."
Whatford's favorite time at Gunston Hall is as the duty night officer. He lights up a Hoya de Monterrey cigar for the patrol. "The best is seeing the grounds and the view of the house at sunset, and then, later, the sunrise," he said. "You can actually hear the turkeys gobbling in the woods. That's my favorite time."