This old house: A family prepares to sell its Virginia homestead

John Kelly
Columnist October 8, 2012

Nina Fiore does not expect you to feel sorry for her. After all, she’s about to get a nice chunk of change, six figures, easily.

But whatever happiness Nina might feel at the windfall is tempered by the way she’s going to get it: by selling the house she grew up in, a house her father built nearly 70 years ago with his own hands. It sits on one of the last undeveloped parcels of land in the heart of Vienna, 11 / 3 nicely treed acres within walking distance of the town’s restaurants and shops.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

“It breaks my heart,” says Nina, 57.

We’re sitting in the house, at a large wooden dining table her father, Anthony J. Fiore, built. He was handy, making his living building models for the Smithsonian and then for the Defense Supply Agency.

Anthony and his wife, Vivian, were from New York and moved to the Washington area in the 1940s after Vivian’s uncle said a skilled man could easily find a job here. They’d spent some time in New Mexico and were smitten with the ranch houses and adobe dwellings they’d seen there. When the Fiores had enough money to buy some land — on Church Street near Beulah Road, the boonies back then — they decided to erect a one-story brick ranch house, bisected by a distinctive flagstone chimney.

And there they raised three girls.

Anthony died in 1997, Vivian in 2009. The will leaves 29 percent of the estate each for Nina and her two older sisters and 13 percent for Nina’s daughter, now 15.

Nina is the executor. She once dreamed of seeing her daughter in the house but doesn’t have nearly enough money to buy out the other heirs. Old houses on the block have gone for close to $700,000, purchased to be torn down and replaced with modern homes. And that’s for lots a third the size of the Fiores’.

“You have to do what’s best for everybody,” Nina says. “Everyone gets their fair share.”

There is no animosity among the sisters, just a sadness that so much personal history will vanish. Gina Fiore-Levin, who lives in California, remembers sitting on the basement stairs and watching their father work on his lathe. She remembers helping him clean up the sawdust that spewed from his big table saw. To this day, she can’t help thinking of her father whenever she smells the distinctive odor of freshly cut wood.

Valerie Bert è, who lives in Italy, still remembers the family of chipmunks that lived by the patio.

“I’m trying to be steely eyed,” Nina tells me. “The past is the past.”

But it’s also incredibly present. Spread out on the table in front of us is the story of the Fiore house. There are blueprints, created by architect Fred R. Romano under the Fiores’ careful direction. There is the bill of sale for the land — $6,300 to Elmer and Anne Cockrill. There is a ledger, the cover of which is inscribed “Poverty Knob — House Cost — 1945-1946.”

Nina doesn’t remember the house ever being called Poverty Knob. She figures it must have been a joke, a reflection of the anxiety the new landowners felt. Inked on the pages of the ledger is the cost of everything that went into building the house: $364 to United Clay Products for 16,000 bricks, $306 to Brown & Hooft for a 61 / 2 -foot steel column.

Ten pounds of 30-penny nails cost 60 cents. Six tons of sand cost $19.50. A bathroom cabinet was $15. Anthony carefully noted the money paid to J.R. Horseman and H.H. Harris, laborers who worked on the house with him.

Elsewhere on the table are black-and-white family photos. Here they are in front of a Christmas tree, each strand of tinsel as straight as if its angle had been measured with a protractor.

Nina, who works for the Government Printing Office and lives in Springfield (the Church Street house has been rented to a friend), is talking with developers. The land will probably fit three houses. It should sell for more than a million dollars.

She thinks about the irony: As Vienna grew, her parents were inundated with offers to buy their house. They always refused. They continued to scrimp and save, never able to shed the lessons they’d learned during the Depression.

“They never bought anything,” she says.

The sisters will sell. The bulldozers will come in. The house will come down. So will many of the trees: tulip poplar, horse chestnut, magnolia, Japanese maple. . . .

New houses will go up. Nina will be able to put some money in the bank.

“I just won’t ever be able to drive down Church Street again,” she says.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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