Colross, photographed in 1916
Princeton Day School
Princeton, New Jersey
Lee Massey Alexander
Thomson Francis Mason
Lee Massey Alexander
Thomson Francis Mason
Arthur "Pen" Pendleton Mason
William Albert Smoot
Dr. Geoffrey W. Rake
Princeton Day School
Colross (also historically known as Belle Air and Grasshopper Hall) is a Georgian mansion that was formerly the center of an estate in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. Colross is currently the administration building for Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey.
The Colross property originally occupied the entire 1100 block of Oronoco Street. The property was originally developed as a plantation by Alexandria merchant John Potts, who began construction of the mansion in 1799-1800. In 1803, the property was purchased by Jonathan Swift, also an Alexandria merchant and a city councilman. Swift continued the mansion's construction during his ownership. Thomson Francis Mason (1785–1838), son of Thomson Mason (1759–1820) and grandson of Founding Father George Mason (1725–1792) of Gunston Hall, purchased Colross following Swift's death in 1824. Mason served as a judge of the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia and as Mayor of Alexandria. During his ownership, Mason made Colross his chief homestead and undertook substantial modifications and additions to the mansion. After a series of successive ownerships, the area around Colross became heavily industrialized, and the mansion was purchased by John Munn in 1929. Between 1929 and 1932, the mansion was transported brick by brick to Princeton. In 1958, Colross was sold to Princeton Day School. It currently serves as an administration building for the school, housing its admission and advancement offices.
The Colross mansion is a two-story brick Georgian style structure, featuring an architectural plan similar to Mount Vernon and Woodlawn, and originally flanked by two wings. The front entrance is covered by a spacious Neoclassical portico supported by wooden Doric columns. The roof is topped by a balustraded deck and further embellished by three dormer windows.
Following its purchase by a real estate development company in 2005, an archaeological excavation of the original Colross site began between March and June 2005 at the behest of the city of Alexandria. Archaeologists uncovered an underground domed brick cistern and evidence of slave outbuildings, in addition to the foundations of the estate's peripheral walls and several ancillary structures. The excavation of the Colross site resulted in 79 condominium buyers walking away from their purchase agreements, due to the delay in construction of the luxury Monarch Condominium project.
Colross served as the venue for several significant Mason family events, including the wedding ceremonies of Thomson Francis Mason's daughters, Sarah Elizabeth Mason (1819–1907) and Virginia Mason (1830–1919). According to local tradition, two children in the Mason family died under different circumstances on the property and were interred in the estate's burial vault. Successive owners of the Colross estate claimed that it was haunted by the deceased Mason children.
The Colross property was developed as a plantation by John Potts, a prominent Alexandria merchant. Potts began construction of a brick mansion on the property between 1799 and 1800. As a result of financial difficulties, he placed the unfinished mansion up for sale in 1801. The property was purchased in December 1803 for $9,000 by Jonathan Swift, a merchant and Freemason. Swift purchased Colross for his bride, Anne Roberdeau, daughter of Brigadier General Daniel Roberdeau (1727–1795). Swift's wife reportedly named the estate "Belle Air." Other sources state that Swift referred to his estate as both “Belle Air” and “Grasshopper Hall.” Swift presided over the Alexandria City Council from 1822 through 1823. His wife, two daughters, and three sons also resided at the mansion. As Alexandria expanded, Colross evolved from a rural plantation into an urban estate. Between 1791 and 1847, the city of Alexandria was a part of Alexandria County within the District of Columbia. Swift continued to construct the mansion of Colross. After Swift's death in 1824, the estate transferred to the ownership of Lee Massey Alexander and his sister, Mrs. Chapman. The Alexander family owned the estate for a brief period, during which time they renamed it "Colross."
Colross was then purchased by Thomson Francis Mason (1785–1838), a prominent jurist, lawyer, councilman, judge of the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia, and Mayor of Alexandria between 1827 and 1830. Mason was the eldest son of Thomson Mason (1759–1820), and the grandson of Founding Father George Mason (1725–1792) of Gunston Hall. According to Mason's daughter, Virginia Mason Davidge, her father won Colross "at a game of cards" from Lee Massey Alexander. Mason utilized Colross as his chief homestead and undertook substantial modifications and additions to the mansion at Colross. Mason built a high brick wall, measuring 10 feet (3.0 m) in height, around the exterior of the Colross property. Huntley in Fairfax County, Virginia remained Mason's secondary country residence. Mason's son, Arthur "Pen" Pendleton Mason (1835–1893), later inherited the Colross estate. Pen Mason was married to Mary Ellen Campbell, a daughter of John Archibald Campbell (1811–1889), an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Orlando B. Willcox, who later served as a Union Army General, visited Colross on several occasions around 1851, and described it as a "fine house and ground and the chief residence of the Masons of Alexandria, much frequented by officers of the army." Willcox also remarked of the "hospitality and civility of the head of the house," Pen Mason's mother, Elizabeth "Betsey" Clapham Price (1802–1873).
During the American Civil War, Colross was seized by Union authorities. According to local tradition and to then Alexandria resident Julian Taylor, at least two Union deserters were executed with their backs against the estate's high brick exterior wall. In addition, a "famous 'bounty jumper'" by the name of Downey, who also shot to death against the brick wall following his capture by his own soldiers. Also according to local tradition, there are legends of the ghost of a soldier who haunts the former location of the estate's brick perimeter wall.
William Albert Smoot, a lumber merchant and coal businessman, purchased Colross from the Mason family and resided at the estate with his family between 1885 and 1917. Smoot's wife was a member of the Alexander family, and therefore, was a descendant of the estate's former owners. During her residency there, the Smoots' daughter, Betty Smoot, wrote that "the grounds included a whole square block and were enclosed with an ancient brick wall ten feet in height." The Smoots' son, William Albert Smoot, later served as Mayor of Alexandria from 1922 to 1930.
The parents of Cornell University professor and activist, Alice Cook (1903–1998), resided at the then-dilapidated Colross with her father's superior from the Southern Railway. Her father worked for the railroad's bookkeeping department. Cook spent her early childhood in residence at the house, and at about the age of ten, Cook's mother took her to Colross for a visit around 1913. She remarked that Colross "had no gaslights, and running water only in the kitchen," and that the house "stood in the midst of railroad tracks." Cook also noted that the house's adjacent stables still had horses, the "elegant plaster ceilings" remained intact, and "great oak doors" still stood within the house's main doorway, behind the front portico's white columns.
In 1917, another lumber merchant, William Hoge, acquired ownership of the mansion. Under similar circumstances to those of nearby Abingdon, Colross's surrounding property underwent industrialization with the construction of a warehouse complex and other ancillary industrial buildings associated with Alexandria Hay & Grain. The mansion at Colross became a storage facility within a lumber yard operated by another planing mill owner. Both the mansion and the adjacent warehouses suffered considerable damage following a 1927 tornado. The damage from the 1927 tornado rendered the mansion at Colross uninhabitable.
Between 1929 and 1932, John Munn purchased the mansion, dismantled it, and shipped the structure brick by brick to Princeton, New Jersey, where it was restored. Following Munn's death in 1956, Colross was purchased by Dr. Geoffrey W. Rake, and following his death in 1958, Colross was sold to Princeton Day School. After its purchase, Colross became the administrative building of the school, which it remains to this day. As of 2014, Colross houses the admission and advancement offices of Princeton Day School, and serves as a venue for the institution's events.
In Alexandria, Colross's remaining brick foundation was buried for over a half-century beneath a slab of reinforced concrete. After the mansion's relocation, its site was the location of, among other structures, a large 50-truck garage, Andy's Car Wash, a Dominion Virginia Power substation, and the Hennage Creative Printers facility.
The mansion at Colross was built in the Georgian architectural style. Colross features wide halls and spacious rooms. The mansion, built between 1799 and 1800, is a two-story brick house featuring a rectangular architectural plan, originally flanked by two wings. One wing served as facilities for the estate's service staff, and the other wing served as a carriage shed. Colross' architectural plan is similar to that of nearby Mount Vernon and Woodlawn estates, and serves as an example of the "country house" style of American colonial architecture prevalent in Maryland and Virginia. It has been described as the "largest and most beautiful mansion ever erected in Alexandria." The Colross property originally occupied the entire 1100 block of Oronoco Street. The grounds of the estate also included various ancillary outbuildings.
The exterior brick walls of the mansion are laid in a Flemish bond pattern, exhibiting a "well proportioned width" of mortar joint between the bricks. Two sets of double inside chimneys extend above the roofline on each side of the mansion's main structure. The front façade of the mansion's main structure, originally facing Oronoco Street in Alexandria, is five bays wide and contains the front entrance to the house at the first floor's center bay. The front entrance is covered by a spacious Neoclassical architecture style portico, supported with two sets of double wooden Doric columns in the front, and engaged columns at the home's brick façade. The frieze of the portico is subordinated to the architrave. The mansion's front door is topped by a leaded fanlight, in a segmented arched shape. Leaded sidelights flank both sides of the main doorway. All of the mansion's windows feature colonial-style lintels.
The roof of the mansion at Colross is covered by gray slate and is further embellished with three dormer windows, facing from the home's front façade. The roof is topped by a balustraded deck. Similar moulding contours were utilized at varying scales throughout the mansion's exterior construction. The mansion's cornice is composed of ornamented moldings.
To the north of the mansion was located a garden, purportedly well known for its boxwoods, lilacs, and roses. The garden remained through the ownership of the Smoot family. A winding path led from the mansion to a large burial vault, closed by a great iron lock. According to members of the Smoot family, the large iron lock to the burial vault would "never stay locked more than three days" at a time. In the front lawn of the mansion, there stood a vase or urn, which according to tradition, marked the location where Pocahontas had been baptized. The urn remained in its location throughout the American Civil War, and was later acquired by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
The former Colross land tract on the 1100 block of Oronoco Street, which is bounded by North Fayette, Oronoco, Henry, and Pendleton streets, was purchased in 2003 by real estate development company Diamond Properties with plans to build Monarch Condominium, a mixed-use mid-rise luxury condominium project. In 2005, Diamond Properties was forced to halt its construction to allow for an archaeological excavation of the Colross site due to Alexandria's Archaeological Protection Code requirement. The excavation of the Colross archaeological site began between March and June 2005, as mandated by the city of Alexandria. Diamond Properties paid R. Christopher Goodwin & Associates Inc., a cultural resource management firm, approximately $100,000 to explore the site for historical artifacts and ensure that all burial plots had been removed.
While only a few artifacts were recovered, historians stated that the dig offered a clearer view of early 19th-century life at Colross. Discoveries included an underground domed brick cistern that served as a water purification system and evidence that slaves lived in outbuildings on the Colross estate. Archaeologists also discovered Colross's original basement floor, laid in a herringbone bond. Evidence of the estate's exterior walls was unearthed along with the foundations of the estate's smokehouse, stables, and burial vault. In the northwestern portion of the property, what is believed to be a foundation of a rectangular burial vault also was uncovered. No burial remains were discovered. All interments were presumably removed in the early 20th century. Thomson Francis Mason was originally interred in 1838, along with two of his daughters, at the Colross graveyard until subsequent residents had their remains reinterred at Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria. According to the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, 79 condominium buyers walked away due to the construction delay.
Significant Mason family events
The Colross estate served as the location for several significant events involving the Mason family. Sarah Elizabeth Mason (1819–1907), a daughter of Thomson Francis Mason and his wife, Elizabeth Clapham Price, married St. George Tucker Campbell at Colross on November 17, 1841. Virginia Mason (1830–1919), another daughter of Thomson Francis Mason and his wife, Elizabeth, married William Hathorn Stewart Davidge at Colross on February 1, 1853. Colross also served as the venue for the funeral of Mrs. Virginia King, wife of Dr. Benjamin King, on December 31, 1850. Mrs. King was a sister of Mrs. Judge Mason.
According to local tradition, two small Mason children, William and Ann, were playing in the estate's yard when a storm arrived. William took shelter in the estate's chicken coop, but the storm's winds toppled the structure, thus killing him. Soon after William's death, his sister Ann drowned in a bathtub at Colross. Both children were interred in the estate's burial vault in the garden. Successive residents at Colross, including members of the Smoot family, claimed the estate was haunted by the deceased Mason children, and reported hearing children "giggling, singing, and talking" and reportedly witnessed apparitions of children in pre-Civil War attire.
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