Haunting at Overlee pool in Arlington shows past is still part of community’s future
By Dan Zak,
The girl’s strawberry blond hair bobbed in ringlets like Shirley Temple’s. She wore a ruffled, light-colored dress. At first Greg York thought it was his daughter, but this girl, in addition to wearing period clothing, was older. And transparent. He could see right through her, to the wood staircase on which she was sitting.
He froze in the foyer of the Victorian-era clubhouse that overlooked his community pool, gripping the old paint cans he was removing from the crumbling stone basement.
Look away, he told himself with unnatural serenity, and when you look back the ghost will be gone.
He did. She wasn’t. She was still there, watching the man who had moved into her house and would eventually oversee its demolition.
York bolted out the front door, scared as hell, down the embankment, toward the pool, as if the bitter incense of chlorine would ward off whatever he’d just seen.
Pool season is upon Washington.
Neighborhoods are reclustering themselves around gated tracts of scratchy concrete and lapping turquoise. Competitive swim teams transform children into anxious missiles and parents into shrieking maniacs. Gossip is swapped. Hot dogs are charred. Separate winter families blob into one big summer family. And, at the Overlee Community Association’s pool in western Arlington County, ghost stories are told.
The pool clubhouse, razed in February, was the former residence of two prominent Virginia families, the second of which remodeled it into a sanitarium for the elderly.
For the first half of the 20th century, Virginians lived, went to pieces and died on the property.
For the second half, Virginians hosted potlucks and performed water aerobics.
Last year, pool members voted 55 to 4 to renovate the half-century-old complex for the first time. Ground was broken in January with the goal of opening by Memorial Day. “Gully-washer” rains and “nightmarish” permit procedures delayed the project, according to the general contractor and pool staff.
Others, in jest, blame the ghost, who they’ve concluded is Margaret A. Febrey, the original homeowner’s daughter who died in 1913. She frightened off one construction worker in February, the day after Greg York had related his own sighting (now four years ago) to the project team over lunch.
“I think his mind was playing” a trick on him, York says without irony. “But the stories around here are legendary.”
This was the property’s first June in 54 years without water in the main pool. There are 800 active families (and a five-year waiting list to become a member), and some have inquired about redeeming their dues to compensate for lost splish-splash time. Others have sought refugee status at other community pools.
“I think that people want their pool open — Memorial Day was a couple weeks ago,” says Karla Brown, president of the Leeway Overlee Civic Association. “People are bummed, but I don’t think anybody blames anyone except for the complexity of the permitting process.”
Last week, construction workers broomed puddles of brown water toward drains in the empty new pool. A hill of rocky dirt marked the spot where the clubhouse once stood under oak trees. The report of nail guns echoed off the bathhouse as contractor Harry Braswell walked to his truck.
“I think once word of the ghost came out, it has a way of making everyone’s imagination a bit crisper,” Braswell says. “I think everyone feels her presence.”
Margaret is buried 1.4 miles from the pool, in Oakwood Cemetery, between her mother and her brother, who died in infancy in 1893. The stones are dateless and unadorned. During demolition and renovation this year, some community members visited the graves to pay their respects, to smooth out any karmic disruption between the distant memory of a girl’s country home and the future vision of a waterslide and volleyball pit.
In the late 17th-century, English colonists with land grants settled northern Virginia. Beginning in the 18th century, large landowners such as the Pearson and Minor families sold chunks of what is now Arlington County to smaller landowners, who in turn divided parcels among heirs or sold tracts to farmers. In 1849, the Febrey family bought 176 acres, hosted tenant farmers, witnessed the arrivals of railroads and the Civil War, and over the years constructed several residences, one of which was a three-bedroom Queen Anne-style home on a knoll overlooking an apple orchard and creek. It was built in the 1890s by Ernest J. Febrey, a steamfitter, shortly before his wife, Grace, gave birth to their daughter Margaret.
Margaret, then the Febreys’ only child, died at half past noon on Jan. 15, 1913, of Pott disease, a tubercular infection of the spine. She was 14. Her funeral was held at her parents’ city residence, 3547 13th St. NW, and she was buried down the road from the family’s country acreage.
In 1919, Ernest conveyed the house’s four-acre lot to a man named Fred D. Paxton. In the ’20s, investment company Arlington Properties Corp. scooped up more Febrey lots and built subdivisions under the heading “Overlee Knolls” (“Overlee” meaning north of Lee Highway).
The New Deal and World War II drew an army of federal workers to the Washington area, and the county evolved into a settlement of GS-4s through GS-12s who commuted into the city. In 1947, Florence Kincheloe, who repurposed the Febrey house as the Crestdale Sanitarium, approved the construction of public streets and alleys through the property, knitting the once-agricultural area into the capital’s urban fabric.
In January 1957, after shuttering the sanitarium, Kincheloe sold the lot and the house for $60,000 to the newly founded Overlee Community Association, which sprang from a jigsaw puzzle of neighborhoods lined with single-family homes.
The association laid a pool and opened it to 100 member families on July 4, 1957. By then the creek had been overtaken by John Marshall Drive. The remnants of the orchard were paved into a parking lot.
The erstwhile sanitarium, looming over the pool, became the community association’s clubhouse and pool manager’s quarters. Robert G. Wrigley, a high school science teacher, managed the pool with his wife and five children for its first 22 years.
When the Wrigleys moved in, the house was colonized by rats and cluttered with medical detritus and sprinkler piping. Mealy wallpaper from the 1890s had to be steamed off. A closet door opened up to a brick wall studded with small hooks, apparently for keys to patients’ rooms. The serpentine brick chimney curved from the tomblike basement up through the creaky domed attic.
The Wrigleys turned the ground floor of the house into event space, where the ladies’ bridge club emitted industrial quantities of perfume and cigarette smoke.
On the deck at night, the Wrigleys projected movies and hosted guitar jam sessions for lifeguards. The once-forlorn property became a social hotspot.
Bob York, brother of current pool manager Greg, moved into the third floor of the house in 1979 to live rent-free as a young swim coach.
The Wrigleys never experienced strange phenomena in the house, but when Bob was alone after hours in the rounded third-floor turret, he occasionally heard music and socializing on the ground floor. Each time he’d investigate, the commotion would stop before he reached the bottom of the spiraling wood staircase.
“In the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland, when you’re riding along and you see all the ghosts dancing down below in a ballroom — the sound always reminded me of that,” Bob York says. “I didn’t see anything. I heard it, and it moved from floor to floor like it was a game. Like they were playing a game with me. I just became impervious to it.”
He lived in the house for 31 / 2 years. The Overlee team, which had always been in the top division of the Northern Virginia Swimming League, became a force under his leadership. A culture grew around the summer league: team chants, slideshows, crab feasts, progressive dinners, senior retreats to Rehoboth Beach. Children separated by school districts repatriated to their immediate neighborhoods during summers, and young parents socialized on the clubhouse deck with 12-packs of beer and dinner brought from home.
“Everything came to center around Overlee,” Bob York says. “Not winning — that was a byproduct. It was all about family.”
When the pool was closed, though, oddities abounded. Closet doors in the clubhouse would pop open, recalls Jim Thomas, the resident manager from 1991 to 2002, and lights that had been turned off the night before would be on in the morning.
One time Thomas rolled a basketball into a bedroom upstairs and after several moments it rolled back out, turned a corner and came to rest at his feet. After his first child was born, he would hear strange sounds coming through the baby monitor at night. Every time he checked, the baby would be fast asleep and silent.
“It could be something really scary or it could have something to do with it being an old house,” says Thomas, who teaches in Arlington. “The floors and doors were slanted. Baby monitors pick up stuff from neighbors. . . . It’s one of those things you explain away.”
Piecemeal renovations drained the house’s historic value and barely masked its slow decay. Total refurbishment would’ve added a half-million dollars to the pool project’s $3 million budget, plus additional future costs for maintaining an aging property. The Overlee Community Association, as owner of a property that had never been nominated for historic designation, had every right to knock down the house to build a structure that would last. In February, the building permit was finally secured, and an orange backhoe bit into the turret of the house. Soon all was rubble.
Was it the right thing to do?
“If it’s something you have faith in and you really wanted to save it, you could’ve figured it out — if it’s not, you rationalize it away,” says Michael Leventhal, the county’s preservation coordinator. “Not everything old is historic, just like not everything new is progress. But there always needs to be a balance between our lives and our community that represents what we are and were, and I think this house did that.”
Last month Robert Wrigley’s ex-wife, Marilynn Daily Swenson, stopped by the property with her oldest daughter, Barbara, to absorb the altered landscape where the family weeded ivy, mowed lawns, tended the pool and lifeguarded.
“It was like our past was wiped out, in a sense,” says Swenson, 79, who lives in Midlothian. “It was sad, but my philosophy is ‘Nothing in life is permanent except change.’ And sometimes you need it.”
When money is involved, the future often steamrolls the past, especially in Arlington County, says Tom Dickinson, a past president of the county’s historical society. Last year, the first house ever built via a Federal Housing Administration loan — the all-cedar Certigrade Home at 11th Road North and North Illinois Streets in the Lacey Forest neighborhood, on land once owned by George Washington, a mile and a half from the Overlee pool — was leveled and replaced by a blocky, gray McMansion. The front porch on which Eleanor Roosevelt signed the FHA papers was replaced by a two-car garage.
“Arlington has never really had a vision of its past,” Dickinson says. “When it was carved off from Alexandria County in 1920, the general view and vision was ‘We’re going to look to our future, to an Arlington that’s separate and distinct from old-time Alexandria.’ ”
Two other Febrey residences still stand on the family’s former farmland: The “Maple Shade” house a couple of blocks away on Powhatan Street was built by Ernest Febrey’s father, and the colonial revival front of the Febrey-Lothrop house faces Wilson Boulevard at North McKinley Road.
“It’s kind of neat to be able to go around town and see the past,” says Sidney Simmonds, Margaret Febrey’s first cousin (once removed), who runs a tax accounting practice on Wilson Boulevard on what used to be Febrey land. “I’m kind of sad to see the Overlee house go, but, as a businessperson who works in Arlington and does a lot with real estate transactions, I have that tough balance between seeing progress in the county and not destroying the history. It’s kind of an inner conflict for me.”
With the physical evidence of the past erased, the community now bequeaths its lore as it would a coveted pool membership.
Evening manager Christina Jeffers, 24, has been coming to the pool since she was 2, and views Overlee as a village that raises its children collectively. Ghost stories have always been a part of this extended family, she says. At the start of every season, the staff would gather at night in the third-floor attic of the clubhouse to educate and spook the rookies.
The legends are based on real sensations. One stormy day when the pool was closed, assistant manager Caitlin Macnamara, 19, and two other employees retreated to the clubhouse, whereupon they each heard the strum of a guitar coming from outside on the deserted deck. They looked at each other and came to the same instant conclusion.
The ghost of Margaret A. Febrey.
(Or was it leftover juju from the Wrigleys’ guitar jams or the bridge-club biddies?)
During one of Jeffers’s first shifts as a manager five years ago, as she was locking up at night, she watched a lifeguard chair swivel on its own, as if following her. She’s felt an impish presence on the grounds, heard the sound of rocks being thrown against construction equipment and the shuffling of phantom flip-flops in the bathhouse breezeway. And if you stand at the top of the steps that lead to the basement locker room, Jeffers and Macnamara say, it feels like somebody is waiting at the bottom among the championship banners from years past. Swimmers assume it’s the ghost of Charles Thompson, a superstar record-holder and Overlee team leader in the 1980s who died in the mid-’90s.
The ghosts at Overlee, where team spirit has a double meaning, are not limited to one era or one person.
“A woman once came up to me and said, ‘I don’t really believe in it, but thank you for keeping Charles’s memory alive,’ ” Jeffers says. “The team plays off it. They like to think he’s cheering for us.”
The community members demolished their physical history and are compensating by haunting themselves.
On Sunday at twilight, Greg York watches garden hoses spill tap water into the new pool’s 225,000-gallon footprint. The pool might be open for business this Sunday. The darkening sky reflects off the shallow water as it imperceptibly rises.
“It can be very eerie when it’s dark and you’re the last one here,” says York, face ruddied by decades on deck, a coach’s whistle tucked under his T-shirt. “But waking up in the morning and walking out of the house, sitting on the deck with your coffee, the sun rising, the team doing laps — it’s beautiful.”
A century ago, 20 yards up the knoll, Ernest Febrey could stand on the porch of his house and survey his domain, his orchard, his daughter prancing down the grassy embankment toward the unknowable future.
Fifty years ago, from the same perch, Robert Wrigley watched his five children become lifeguards for a community coalescing around the pool.
This fall, when the new clubhouse is finished, Greg York will inherit the vantage point, and he will see parked minivans and growing families, new diving boards and stadium seating, and maybe, now and then, a glimmer of the past.