Where We Live: Morrisonville, as serene as Russell Baker remembers


Brian Rooney’s Morrisonville home, right, started out as two houses. Next door is the Ida Rebecca, named by current owners Michael and Rebecca John for a former owner, grandmother of Russell Baker. (Photo by M.J. McAteer For The Washington Post /FTWP)
July 8, 2011

Morrisonville, a tiny hamlet in northwestern Loudoun County, was founded in the early 19th century. But it took Russell Baker to put in on the map.

In his celebrated autobiography, “Growing Up,” the Pulitzer Prize winner shared lyrical memories of the quiet country crossroads that he called “the center of my universe in the days of my innocence”— the fields blanketed with buttercups, barn lofts redolent of hay, the creak of the porch swing. Morrisonville, Baker wrote, was “a delightful place to spend a childhood,” even though “almost nothing of consequence happened there.”

More than 80 years later, Baker’s assessment of Morrisonville remains accurate: Nothing much happens there. Yet it remains a delightful place, for adults as well as children — as long as they have a preference for rural life. A fondness for old houses is helpful, too.

Judy and Pat Brescia can check both boxes. They moved from Fairfax County 31 years ago so they could have room for horses.

Unlike many of their neighbors, who work locally or from home, the Brescias commute, separately, to full-time government jobs in Washington — a 110-mile round trip for each. They shop in Leesburg, 25 minutes away.

“You’re away from everything here,” Judy Brescia said. “But that kind of suits us.”

That away-ness also has suited Morrisonville, allowing it to keep its vintage look. A smattering of newer houses have appeared on the outskirts of the unincorporated village, but the “downtown”— a cluster of about 10 houses — has remained mostly unaltered since Baker, a longtime New York Times columnist, was a boy there in the late 1920s.

The biggest effect of the extensive development that the county has undergone in recent years has been the unwelcome increase in traffic. Farmers in pickup trucks going 25 mph have been replaced by SUVs doing 55, the Brescias say. They no longer feel safe riding their horses along the area’s gravel roads. Other than that, says Judy Brescia, “I never feel threatened here.”

Morrisonville, centered on the intersection of Morrisonville and Purcellville roads about four miles from Lovettsville, was named after Archibold Morrison, a major landholder in the area in the early 1800s, according to local historian Eugene Scheel.

By the 1850s, the village could boast of a store and a post office, although it has neither now. Over the years, the Bakers gradually replaced the founder’s family as the main residents of Morrisonville. Many of the Bakers were stonemasons, including Russell Baker’s father. Several of the village houses, like the Brescias’, have a Russell Baker connection. (He was born in an upstairs bedroom of the Brescias’ circa-1790s log house.)

In the writer’s day, Morrisonville had about 20 residents. The population count really hasn’t changed much since then. But while Baker’s relatives and neighbors were mostly poor and uneducated, today’s residents are wealthier and worldlier, even if they do enjoy staying close to home.

Michael John, for example, is a former naval officer. He and his wife, Kate, a former interior designer, lived all over the world before moving to Morrisonville about five years ago. They moved into a house that once belonged to Baker’s redoubtable grandmother, Ida Rebecca. The stone portion of that house was built in the 1830s, the Johns said. The couple christened their home the “Ida Rebecca” and put the name on a plaque on the front of the house.

Like many of their neighbors, the Johns are history buffs. They often participate in Revolutionary War and Civil War reenactments, and they describe themselves as “cross-century dressers.” So they were willing to make concessions to the house’s drawbacks: No room for the canopy portion of a bed, for example, because of low ceilings. They converted an attic area into extensive closets because old houses notoriously lack storage space.

Their next-door neighbor, Brian Rooney, also has a quirky old home, a log-and-stone house that started out as two houses. Parts of the structure date to the late 18th century, and Rooney has uncovered Colonial buttons and an 1819 penny on his property.

Rooney, who repairs and restores vintage motorcycles and cars, has lived there for 19 years. He belonged to the Old House Group, whose members meet monthly to swap renovation stories over potluck suppers. He has decorated his house with family quilts and Western memorabilia. “I consider myself more of a caretaker than an owner,” Rooney says.

Jill Evans-Kavaldjian, Haig Kavaldjian, and their daughters, Aislin, 18, and Nora, 16, live on the other side of Morrisonville Road in a house that hasn’t quite cracked the centennial mark, making it a relative newbie in the village. Evans-Kavaldjian is an artist and her husband is a software designer who works from home, so the couple are spared the Brescia-style commute.

The Kavaldjians, who had first bought the Ida Rebecca, sold it to the Johns and moved across the street because they liked the more open floor plan of the 1926 Arts and Crafts house.

“It’s a circle house,” Evans-Kavaldjian says, by which she means that all the downstairs rooms connect, making it great for parties — and for children on a tear. The kitchen features a refrigerator from the ’20s that still works, while the family’s modern appliances are hidden in cabinets in an adjacent scullery. The house was owned by Baker’s aunt and built by Bakers.Its unusual stone fireplace — made of locally quarried geodes, garnets and quartz — showcases the clan’s masonry skills.

Like their neighbors, the Kavaldjians dislike speeding drivers, but they come up with only one other downside to village life: lousy drainage. Their septic system has to be pumped regularly. But they say these are minor inconveniences in exchange for living in such a bucolic spot surrounded by good neighbors. “We’re all friends here,” says Evans-Kavaldjian.

Metal sculptor Michael Clay concurs. He and his wife, Tina, who works with Loudoun County schools, raised their sons, Sam, 23, and Wyatt, 19, in a late-19th-century log-and-frame house next to Rooney.

“We have a community, but we are in the country,” Clay says. “It’s a nice mix.”

M.J. McAteer is a freelance writer.

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