Fairfax County’s Hollin Hills is a happy experiment in modernity

June 1, 2012

In coming decades, the character of metropolitan Washington’s growth will be mostly urban, not suburban. Even in traditionally suburban Maryland and Virginia counties, redevelopment will be transit-oriented with pedestrian-friendly, grid-like street patterns, relatively high density and mixed rather than single uses.

Virtually all new housing in future smart-growth communities will be multi-family apartment buildings and attached dwellings rather than single-family homes. But existing subdivisions aren’t disappearing. Many suburban developments have aged and evolved positively, among them Hollin Hills in Fairfax County, an award-winning residential community of 450 homes about two miles south of Alexandria and the Capital Beltway, between Fort Hunt Road and U.S. Route 1.

Planned in the late 1940s, architecturally unique Hollin Hills was built in the early 1950s during the post-World War II housing boom. Architect Charles Goodman and landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the project for developer Robert C. Davenport, who wanted to build attractive but modestly sized, affordable homes for America’s middle class.

According to Goodman, architect for the original Washington National Airport terminal, the goal at Hollin Hills was to provide “ideal country living for urban people.” And in 1950, the Hollin Hills area of Fairfax County was still “country.”

Hollin Hills is aptly named. The wooded site is extremely hilly and, as Goodman observed 60 years ago, it was a complex parcel of land that most builders would hesitate trying to develop. Yet it was the site’s dramatic topography that inspired not only the subdivision’s road and lot layout (lots were at least one-third acre), but also the unprecedented contemporary architecture Goodman created to fit the site.

The site planning and architectural strategies are immediately apparent. The twisting contours of steep hills and meandering valleys dictated the labyrinthian road network. Likewise, each house was carefully wedded to the natural terrain of each lot, thereby preserving existing tree cover, providing privacy and capturing views and sunlight as much as possible.

Thus, one-, two- and occasionally three-level houses were perched on hilltops or ridges, nestled into hillsides or placed on less steeply sloping valley floors. Rather than being consistently aligned, houses were deployed with greatly varying setbacks and orientations on differently shaped lots that front continuously curving streets and cul-de-sacs. The community also includes a number of public parks and interconnected trails frequented by deer; tennis and swimming facilities; and the Hollin Meadows Math and Science Focus School.

But Goodman’s late-1940s, innovative house designs, epitomizing mid-20th century modernism, are what sets Hollin Hills most distinctly apart from other single-family home subdivisions in the Washington metropolitan area.

He used a common architectural language for the modest, wood-framed homes. Inside, open floor plans spatially unify each home’s communal living, dining and kitchen areas, making each space feel larger. Outside, instead of steeply pitched, gabled roofs, flat or low-slope roofs top each house. Roof edges are visually thin with narrow facias and short overhangs. Rooftop skylights and high-wall, clerestory windows complement extensive floor-to-ceiling glazed facades that stretch across living-dining-kitchen spaces and bedrooms. Where glass stops, exterior wood cladding takes over. Brick and stone are also used for chimneys, exposed foundation and retaining walls, terraces and steps.

Over the decades, the original Hollin Hills houses proved too small for evolving tastes and lifestyles. Consequently, owners enlarged and modified homes. With design review committee approval, new rooms, porches, decks and accessory structures were added. Kitchens and bathrooms were remodeled, cabinetry and finish hardware redone, mechanical and electrical systems upgraded, roofing membranes replaced, high-performance windows installed. Yet original home exteriors facing streets remain essentially unchanged.

The most visible and dramatic change is the Hollin Hills landscape. Today broad, dense canopies of huge deciduous trees and tall evergreens surround, soar above and shade homes and streets. Flowering ornamental trees and shrubbery abound. Residents have cultivated gardens for all seasons in front, rear and side yards, many with little grass to mow. The landscape, as much as the architecture, imparts a strong, community-wide sense of unity and harmony.

Sharing feelings of stewardship and proud of the legacy, Hollin Hills homeowners have sought National Register of Historic Places designation. Former resident Michael Sorkin, an architect and well-known critic, summarized the legacy. “Hollin Hills is one of the truly happy experiments in modernity, a place that — because of the unique conjunction of style and time — remains the kind of community so many modernists dreamed of, a beautiful place of social activism, love of nature and potluck picnics.”

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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